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Following the war, Richard Armstrong longed for a normal life without death and chaos surrounding his every movement. No matter how hard Richard tried, though, there was nothing he could do to keep himself away from the disaster that followed his every step. When Richard was a young boy, his mother miscarried a son leading her into a great state of depression. For months, Richard fought for his mother’s attention but failed every time. Richard’s older brother, Patrick and his best friend Billy Worth were the only two people Richard could go to during this time. Due to the stress of their mother‘s condition, the young boys’ father abandoned his family and fled the state. After their father had left town, Richard’s mother was overcome with grief and took her own life, leaving Patrick and Richard in the care of their estranged Aunt Greta. Soon, Patrick turned eighteen and joined the army. He returned home after a year of service missing both his legs. Coming on eighteen himself, Richard was eager to follow in his brothers footsteps and serve his country in the Vietnam War. Summer came around and Richard celebrated his eighteenth birthday with his brother and aunt and three days later, Richard enlisted in the United States Army.
Richard endured more tragedies in the army than any teenage boy should ever have to. He developed a soldier’s attitude and with every death he witnessed, his soul blackened a little more every time. To him, it seemed like centuries before the war finally ended in 1975 when the last ten American Marines returned home from the battlefield. Although emotionally scarred, he returned home physically unscathed. Like most others, Richard had regrets, but unlike most, he let his regrets affect him in such a way that he could not carry on with an ordinary life. In the war, he witnessed his best friend’s death.
Richard and Billy had been friends since before he could remember. They entered the army at the same time and made a pact that they would leave the military the exact same way—together. Two weeks into fighting, Billy was shot in the abdomen. Running towards where Richard stood in horror, Billy dropped to his knees. Gasping for air, he toppled over onto the ground and Richard sprinted to him. The deafening sound of gun shots made Richard’s head throb. He could hear bullets ricocheting off the tin. Richard held Billy in his arms, in the middle of the unsafe street, hunched in between the rubble and the bodies. He hoisted Billy over his shoulders, letting out a low grunt. He tried his best to stay low as he ran into an empty ally. He gently lay his friend down in front of him. Kneeling, he began to weep.
He grasped Billy’s hand tightly and cried; “Billy, you’ll make it. You have to, you promised!” For what seemed like hours, Richard knelt beside his dying friend, but instead of getting others to help; he remained next to Billy for only one reason. Billy would only hang on a few minutes longer with Richard by his side. He was bleeding out, but he did not seem to be in much pain. Richard’s grief turned to anger.
“You promised!” He shouted. Still, Richard refused to leave Billy. He knew that the second he ran for help, Billy would close his eyes and let the spirits take him to wherever people go after death.
Several months after Billy’s death, the government began to send troops home as the war was finally coming to an end. Richard and his fellow soldiers were shipped back to the United States and Richard returned to his little hometown of Waitsburg, Washington. Waitsburg had not changed much except for the new strip mall that had been built while Richard was away. Richard applied for a job there. He believed it was the only way he could possibly continue a normal life. Because of his lack of education and work background, the only job available to Richard was a night-shift janitor. He accepted the offer and began work that week. Days went by and Richard thought of Billy more than he had thought of any other human being. Looking back, he realized that it had been a mistake to not get a medic to help his friend. He recognized the selfishness of keeping his friend alive, suffering. He remembered the expression on Billy’s face, the horror and pain showing through his eyes.
Like every other day, Richard awoke to the unbelievably irritating beep of his alarm clock. He rolled onto his side, squinting his eyes to try and make out the date on his calendar hanging on the wall across from his bed. The day was September 23, 2010. Richard rolled onto his back, and slowly pulled himself up. He placed his hands onto his lower back and leaned backwards, listening to the cracking and popping of his spine. Richard let out a sigh of exhaustion and rubbed the palms of his aged hands across his wrinkled cheeks. He scooted himself off the bed and made his way into the bathroom. Leaning over the sink, Richard turned the faucets and cupped his hands, filling them with warm water. He brought it to his face and let the water run down his face and neck. He peered at his reflection in the mirror, noticing a few gray hairs that weren’t there the morning before. He frowned as he looked away from the mirror. Richard finished his daily routine and headed downstairs where he sat in his living room, watching re-runs of old sitcoms, until the sun began to sink in the sky and it was time for his work to begin.
The night started out like any other. Richard traveled from store to store through the pass way that connected each of the buildings that made up the strip mall where Richard worked. He took note of all the others that were still in the mall; Matt Bezaleel, Shiloh Still, Sarina Frieden, Lilly Young, Julian Young, and Apollo Jones. Although Richard knew everyone that worked there, he rarely made contact with any one of them. Most people that met him wrote him off as an antisocial jerk, and Richard knew what they thought of him. The only person that suspected different was the struggling musician who often spent his days and nights practicing his music in the back rooms of the mall, Apollo Jones. Apollo had the potential to be something great. Talented in many areas, his parents expected him to grow up to be great scientist or a famous theorist of some sort. Instead, Apollo followed his dreams of being a singer. On his free time, he wrote poems and lyrics to new songs. He enjoyed holding deep conversations with any person who would listen.
A little later that night, work was winding down for Richard, there wasn’t much left to do when he heard a knock on the back door of the OrganiFoods building where he was mopping the tiled floors. He peered out the window, trying to make out a face through the glare on the glass. He leaned back and squinted. He recognized the face of Sylvester Holloway, known to many as Sly. Sly was a senior at Waitsburg High where he often got himself into bundles of trouble. Between assaulting classmates and stealing school property, Sly had been the mastermind behind it all. Richard wondered what Sly was doing here so late at night.
Sylvester knocked again. Richard wasn’t sure if he should let him in, until he noticed a flash of something silver pressed to the side of Sylvester’s head. There was a look of panic in the young man’s face and a masked man held a pistol pointed at Sylvester’s temple. Richard did not fear the man holding the weapon, but he did fear for Sylvester’s life. Richard raised both his hands above his head and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. He walked slowly towards the glass door. He switched the lock and backed away quickly, hands still raised. The criminal kicked the door and pushed Sylvester into the room. Immediately the man in the mask began barking orders at Richard,
“On your knees, old man!” Richard knelt. “Empty your pockets!” Richard pulled a quarter and two safety pins out of his navy blue jeans. He flipped both pockets inside out and showed the masked man that he was unarmed, harmless and innocent. At that moment, Apollo came into the room through the back door holding a guitar. Apollo startled the thief accidentally and the man in black shot towards the door. Apollo shrieked and dropped to the floor, the bullet ricocheting off of the metal trim around the door. The familiar sound sent Richard into a deep state of thought. Memories flooded his mind. Richard stared blankly into the distance. He could hear a distant voice getting louder.
“Who else is here?” It asked. “Tell me who else is here!” Richard snapped back into reality. He looked up at the robber. “Hey, are you stupid? I said who else is here, Janitor Man.” Richard shook his head, thinking about the others. He knew there were six others, but Richard was prepared to say anything to save them. To Richard, the people in the store were his family. They did not necessarily talk to him or like him, but to Richard, they were familiar faces. Faces he trusted.
“No one, sir,” Richard said and he flashed a quick glance at Apollo. The robber kicked the back of his prisoner’s knees and Sylvester fell to the floor. He knelt with his head down and the man pushed his pistol into the back of Sylvester’s head. “Lie to me again and this kid is toast. Now, I will ask you one more time, is there anyone else here?” Richard shook his head again. At that moment, Sly pulled something out of the back of his jeans and pointed it at Richard who was still kneeling. Sylvester stood and smiled evilly down at the musician and the janitor.
“What is this?” Apollo shouted.
“Bravo, master,” said the masked man, clapping. “Well done.”
“I took an acting class in Franklin County,” Sly boasted arrogantly. The masked man took off his mask revealing the fresh face of High School Sophomore Ricky Giolla. Ricky was a well known trouble maker, but Ricky wasn’t always a bad apple. Until the eighth grade, Ricky had been like any other teenage boy, good grades, and nice friends. Sometime between eight and ninth grade, though, Ricky began acting out in violent ways. He became good friends with Sly during the summer before his freshman year. Together, they were the most feared teenagers in the county. Sly was the leader until he was shipped to Franklin County Detention Center after school started up again. When Sly came back, everyone thought he had turned a new leaf, making amends with people he hurt, or people whose houses he’d vandalized. He began doing community service and stopped doing drugs. Richard looked up at Sylvester. He noticed the red under his eyes and nose.
“Are you sick, Sylvester?” Sly shot Richard a terrifying look
“Yes, I am sick of you.”
“Hey, boss? I just got a text from Julian. Everyone’s in the back.” Ricky flailed his gun in the direction of the door and Apollo gasped. Julian? Richard looked at Apollo whose mouth hung open.
“Julian’s behind this?” Apollo asked. No one answered. Julian Young was the only son of Lilly Young. He started doing drugs and getting into trouble when he met Sly earlier that year. His mother disapproved of her son hanging out with the town thug and banned him from seeing Sly. Still, Julian would sneak out at night to create mayhem with Sylvester and Ricky. Lilly figured out about their shenanigans and punished Julian by forcing him to come with her to work. Lilly was a night stock person, she worked along side Matt Bezaleel. Julian would sit in the back room and talk to Apollo while his mom worked.
Sylvester and his sidekick herded Richard and Apollo into the room where everyone else was sitting. Julian stood over them with a knife, not as threatening as a gun but if used properly, just as deadly.
“Nice work, Julian,” Sly said, “now you can sit right down with them.” He shoved Apollo forward and he dropped to his knees again, joining the rest. Lilly was on the end, wailing.
“Why?” she cried.
“Hey, man, you told me I would be a part of this. You told me I’d get some of the profits!” Julian shouted, still standing in front of his mother and the five others. Sly pointed his pistol at Julian’s chest, Lilly shrieked. Julian slowly dropped to the floor.
“You, what’s your job here.” Sylvester pointed at a thin, gangly young man named Shiloh Still. Shiloh told the bandit that he was a cashier and he usually stayed late to close up the cash registers.
“Show me the money then, man,” Sylvester barked. Sly grabbed Shiloh’s veiny forearm and whipped him onto his feet. Shiloh led Sylvester into one of the shops. Ricky stayed back with the others as Sly and Shiloh made their ways to each of the four strip mall shops connected by hallways that ran in between each store. Richard looked over at Julian who was pouting now. Then, he looked over at Ricky. He must have been getting drowsy because his pistol hung loosely in his hand down by his side. Richard was close enough to knock the gun out of Ricky’s hand. He stared at the pistol and calculated the distance, judging the situation in his mind. Richard hesitated for a moment, worrying that once he had the gun in his possession, Julian would use his knife in defense. Or worse, would call for Sylvester who also had a fire arm. There was no doubt that if Julian turned on Richard and called for Sly, there would be a duel ending in most likely death. The room was silent save the muffled whimpers of the other hostages. Richard new he had to do something, so in one swift motion, he kicked the gun out of Ricky’s hand. The pistol slid across the floor and landed in front of Apollo who picked it up quickly. Richard grabbed it from Apollo and aimed it at Ricky.
“One word and I swear to god…” Richard let his sentence trail off into nowhere and Ricky was silent. Richard looked for an exit. Quickly, he showed all the others to the back door and they spewed out into the parking lot. Lilly grabbed Julian angrily behind the neck and drug him to the car. Apollo put his hand on Richard’s shoulder.
“I will get the cops,” he said. Richard nodded. He still stood with his eyes on Ricky, his gun aimed at his heart. He could hear Sylvester shouting in the background and Richard realized that his job wasn’t finished yet.
“Apollo, I need you to make sure everyone gets out of here, I will get Shiloh,” Richard said.
“You know, I knew you were different than everyone else made you out to be,” Apollo replied before running off into the dark parking lot.
Richard grabbed Ricky by the collar and pushed him into the room where Shiloh was shoveling the money from the cash registers into a large bag, tears stained his pink cheeks. Sly turned around startled when Richard entered the room with Ricky in front of him. As Sly lifted his gun, the room turned red and then blue, flashing the colors of a police car. Sirens blared from outside the strip mall. Sylvester grabbed Shiloh and held him close, flashing his gun towards the cops, then towards Richard, then again towards his hostage.
Richard shouted over the sirens, “Sly, you don’t want to do this.”
“Why not?” A look of terror was smeared across Sylvester’s face. His hands began to shake.
“I have experienced the guilt,” Richard continued, “I would not wish that pain on anyone.” Richard looked at Sylvester and pleaded with him using his eyes. Sly began to weep, his entire body shaking now. His arm dropped and Shiloh broke loose of his grip, running to the back of the room. Richard nodded towards the front door and two police officers burst into the room, one rushing to Sylvester and the other to Ricky. Once the thieves were taken away, Richard and Shiloh exited the building. Apollo rushed to their sides. They stood in the parking lot in silence for a moment. One by one, each of the freed hostages walked up to the three men and they all stood, staring at each other. Richard finally felt accepted, loved. A smile spread across his lips. All his hopes and dreams had been fulfilled and his regrets were lifted off of his shoulders. He felt like the Greek God, Sisyphus, who was given the ridiculous encumbrance of rolling a great boulder up a steep hill. Richard was Sisyphus, letting the boulder roll down, releasing him from his burdens. He felt like he could live again. Richard was free once more.