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Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (3 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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It is also the point at which she realizes,
He's going to kill us all.

Gun Man is furious about something. Zoe can't tell if it's because she's been too slow, or if someone else here has done something to tick him off, or if he's passed some mental landmark that was holding him in check, or what. He doesn't even seem to be concerned anymore about Zoe getting the guard's gun. Instead, he's fixated on the young guy in the good clothes.

What have you done?
Zoe wonders at Jacket.

Besides the obvious: He's taken one big step forward. And this means he, not Zoe, is now the one standing closest to Gun Man. He still has his hands in the air, but apparently that isn't good enough.

Gun Man grabs him by his well-cut jacket and shoves him against the half-wall that separates the tellers from the rest of the
bank. He has his left arm pressed against the young man's throat, and his gun pressed against his temple. “Drop the gun,” he shouts at the guard. “Drop the gun or I blow this asshole's brains out.”

Zoe hadn't even been aware of the guard drawing his weapon.

And of all the stupid things he could say, Jacket tells the guard, “Don't.”

“You think I'm bluffing?” Gun Man demands. “I can do it. You gotta know nothing would make me happier than to do it.” He twists the gun back and forth as though trying to screw it into Jacket's head.

In any case, the guard does not put down his gun. He steps right next to Zoe, and he has his gun aimed at Gun Man's head. Zoe sees the guard's hand is shaking, and surely that's not a good sign.

The tellers—very sensibly, in Zoe's estimation—all duck behind their counters.

Stop this
, Zoe tells herself.
Stop it now.
She can. To a certain extent.

But she has not had good luck with this sort of thing in the past. She spent way too long on it at thirteen—she thinks she may have spent
playing back various moments when she was thirteen, trying to fix things, despite the fact that, really, nobody can fix being thirteen. And just a few weeks ago, there was the whole business with Delia's boyfriend, when she didn't understand the situation. Not that
situation seems open to a lot of interpretation.

“Take the money,” Gun Man is ordering Jacket, since the bag has made its way back to the teller nearest them and is sitting right there next to him. “These nice people are going to let us walk out of here so I don't have to shoot you.”

“Screw you,” Jacket says. Which strikes Zoe as yet another very
obviously not smart thing to say.

“It's this simple,” Gun Man says. “Cooperate—hope everyone cooperates—and you live. I'll release you outside.”

“No, you won't,” Jacket argues. He repeats the thought to the guard, as though to make sure the guard understands. “He's never going to let me go. He's never going to let any of us go. There are too many people who could identify him. So you might as well just shoot him now.”

First no video witness, then no people witnesses. This is the same conclusion Zoe reached when the man shot out the cameras. Still, she can't help clutching at hope.
You don't know for a fact that he's going to kill you
, she thinks at Jacket.
Better the chance of maybe being killed later than definitely being killed now.

Which is when she has the thought:
Is he stupid or suicidal?

Jacket refuses to take the bag that the one teller is trying to hand him, reaching up from behind her hiding place.

The guard seems to decide that Zoe, standing so close, is in the way, and he shoves her; but she trips over her own feet and instead of ending up farther away, ends up on her knees on the floor.

Jacket is looking directly at Gun Man and tells the guard, “Take the shot.”

“Even if,” Gun Man hastily points out, “this clown cop could get a shot off before I could, even if he puts the bullet in my brain and I'm dead in an instant, in that instant my finger
tighten on the trigger, and you're dead.”

“I'm dead in any case,” Jacket tells the guard, and Zoe wishes he wouldn't be so sure of that. “Or he'd prove his good intentions by putting his gun down now.”

Gun Man proves his bad intentions by not moving.

Jacket repeats to the guard, “Take the shot.”

The guard isn't the only one whose hand is shaking. Gun Man sees his options dwindling as Jacket refuses to cooperate, and Zoe knows this makes him even more dangerous.

Say it
, Zoe tells herself.
Say it now.

She needs to risk drawing attention. She crosses her arms, hugging herself. All she needs to do is to say, “Playback,” which will make all of this go away.

She falters when she sees Jacket brace himself. For what? Does he have a plan? Does he expect the gunman will see the hopelessness of getting away and back down, or does Jacket think he can overpower him? Will he dodge or duck or drop to his knees in the hope of avoiding Gun Man's bullet while giving the guard a clear shot? Or is he preparing himself to die? She's looking directly into his blue eyes and can't begin to guess what's going on behind them as he says, “Take the damn shot.”

And the guard does.

Whether conscious revenge or muscle reflex, the bank robber squeezes his trigger, too.

And whatever Jacket's plan was—unless it was to die—it doesn't work.

Which brings everything back to the beginning, leaving Zoe spattered in the blood of both the thief and the customer she'd almost had time to grow to like. Not to mention bits of bone. And what she very fervently tries to convince herself could not possibly really be pieces of brain matter.

how the story starts.


into please-please-please-don't-notice-me statues and those who dove behind chairs and tables—now take the opportunity to make a break for the door. Zoe is vaguely aware of the thudding of their feet, like antelope spooked by a lion.

Which she recognizes as being an unreasonable there-you-go-thinking-you're-better-than-they-are judgment, considering she is among the frozen. She thinks of those
National Geographic
films where you watch the stupid baby antelope, the one without the sense to even try to run, get taken down and devoured.

Still—burst appendix and thunderstorms notwithstanding—this is as close as she's ever come to dying in her fifteen years. At least, as far as she knows. She supposes the world is full of idiot drivers—really-too-old-to-be-driving or really-too-young-to-be-driving or really-too-stupid-to-be-driving drivers—who end up hitting a street sign before they have a chance to head off into oncoming traffic, so all the people who
have been plowed into never even know how close a call they've had. Not to mention assorted meteor strikes and flash floods and earthquakes and plagues and spontaneous combustions that might have occurred, but didn't.

But Zoe recognizes that she's intentionally trying to distract herself with some pretty lame nitpicking. The fact is, she could very easily have been killed just now—and for the moment she is still
feeling more scared by the
s than grateful for the big

One of the bank tellers is screaming—a reaction for which Zoe has no patience, not after the fact—and at least one of the customers is crying, which Zoe is more willing to accept, as she herself might give in to crying later on. It's just there's no time
Not because the police are coming in, which they are, too late, carrying enough gear to attack a terrorist stronghold. But because a decision must be made. By Zoe. She must make a decision, and she doesn't want to because she knows how easily things could have gone another way, how easily the bank robber could have turned his gun on all of them.

This has nothing to do with you
, Zoe reminds herself. Not for the first time since she walked into this bank. Not for the first time in her life.

She intentionally tries to avoid thinking of the young man who may well have died in her place.

She is staring so intently at her knees to avoid looking at the two dead bodies, which she's almost close enough to touch, that she does not at first see the feet and legs of the policeman who steps between her and the bodies, specifically trying to block them from her view. As though the image isn't fixed in her brain indelibly.

Despite the way she knows she looks—like a street kid, or at least a troublesome kid, neither of which she is, but that's what she looks like—despite that, the situation is such that the policeman doesn't focus on this. He puts his hand, his free hand, not the one holding the assault rifle, on her shoulder. “It's all right,” he encourages her. “It's all over.”

Shows how much

Zoe looks up the length of his black-clad legs, his flak jacket, past his face, hoping to catch sight of a clock, but she can't get beyond the blood on the wall behind him. A normal teenager would have a cell phone to tell the time, but the group home kids are not allowed to carry them.

How many minutes have passed, have been wasted by her feeling sorry for herself? Twenty-three minutes are all she has. After that, her options will have ended.

Which would be a relief.

For a coward.

But it hasn't been twenty-three minutes. Definitely not since the shooting. Probably not even since she walked into the bank.

Zoe a coward? She doesn't want to be. But she doesn't want to be dead, either.
is the end of all the possible stories of one's life.
is closing the choose-your-own-adventure book and returning it to the library—no, it's burning the book.
means no more chance for even having options.

I don't have to put my life in danger
, Zoe tells herself.
I don't have to come back inside the bank. I can stop this from somewhere else.

She hugs her arms tight around herself and makes the wish by saying, “Playback.”



Zoe is once again clutching her ill-gotten folder, back out on the street, closer to the hat and purse boutique—too cutely named Tops 'n Totes—than to the bank. It hasn't started raining yet, though the oddness of the light—unnaturally bright and glittery as the sunlight bounces off the dark and swollen-looking clouds—should be a warning to anyone who glances up at the sky. Zoe wonders how she could ever not have sought shelter at this point. Fortunately, a lot of other people don't have any more sense than she did.

To free her hands, she once more tucks her folder of papers beneath her t-shirt, securing it with the waistband of her jeans. If anyone on the street is alarmed to see that flash of her midriff, they're not saying.

She isn't used to asking for help and isn't quite sure of the best approach. She suspects if she sounds hysterical, this will scare people off; too composed, and they won't think twice about blowing her off.

“Excuse me,” she says, almost grabbing for the arm of a woman passing by—but she hasn't lost herself that far, and knows touching would be a mistake.

Still, the woman practically recoils from Zoe. She is well dressed, probably a sales associate from one of the department stores, rushing to somewhere-or-other during her late lunch or her early-afternoon break. No doubt she has had experience with
teenagers looking pretty much the way Zoe does. She has probably called store security on them.

Zoe camouflages her attempt to catch hold of the woman by swinging her arm around—rather dramatically, admittedly—and tapping her own wrist. Kind of a silly gesture, since most people check the time by looking at their cell phones and don't even own a wristwatch; but it gets the point across. Anyway, this woman is old enough that she probably has to ask her children when she wants to change her ringtones or add a new contact to her phone. She does have a watch, and she glances at it and, never quite stopping, never quite making eye contact with Zoe, says, “Quarter after.”

“Excuse me,” Zoe repeats, calling to the woman's back but not racing after her, which would likely cause the woman to drop dead from a heart attack. But such a nice round number sounds as though it comes from glancing at a clock face, not reporting a digital readout. “Is that the exact time? It's important.”

The woman is still suspicious, and even glances around as though to make sure Zoe isn't with a gang, isn't trying to distract her before accomplices rush in to knock her down and grab her purse.

Is this woman
so skittish or is there something wrong with the way Zoe looks? Zoe glances down at herself, half expecting to see she's still spattered with blood, although that is not how things work when she plays back time.

“One seventeen,” the woman says.

“Thank you.” Zoe tries to sound genuinely grateful, without showing the dripping sugary sarcasm she really feels.

1:17. Well, subtract a minute for trying to get a straight answer
out of her. It was probably 1:16 when Zoe arrived back here. So 1:16 (actual starting time) + 23 minutes (the fullest extent of playback) means Zoe has until 1:39 in what Zoe thinks of as flux time. Zoe has made up these terms herself, because there has never been anyone to explain these things to her. Of course not. Zoe is a freak, with a freakish talent. She suspects that in previous centuries her ability would have gotten her the reputation of being a witch. Zoe prefers to think of herself as a freak, rather than a witch. A freak who has the ability to play back life—twenty-three minutes at a time. Once she has started a playback, she can stop partway through and return to the same starting time—up to ten repeats if she so chooses—which is why she thinks of this time as being in flux. It isn't permanently set until the full twenty-three minutes are over. At which point, that particular twenty-three-minute segment of time—she thinks of it as a story line—solidifies? Closes off? In any case, that whole block of time is permanently no longer available to her fiddling. The story moves on …

BOOK: 23 Minutes
2.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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