Chapter Seven: Paper Tigers


I could only hear three sounds in the diner: the bomb’s continuous beeping, Gage’s huffing and puffing, and the wind moving through the space where the front door used to be. I knew I should move. I should be running to check on Marcus. But my feet felt like stone and I think some part of me already knew it was too late.

Emily ran first and Gage did not stop her. Brett was right behind her. It took extra moments and sheer willpower, but I finally got up. I felt like I was walking underwater as I approached the door. Brett and Emily carefully stepped through the glass.

I made it to the door and felt like someone punched me.

Marcus lay on the concrete, body twisted at an unnatural angle. Shards of glass lay underneath and all around him, and I could see red streaks on his arms where some had cut him. Three red puddles had formed where Marcus had taken the bullets. Blood coated nearly his entire shirt and I could see the rips where the bullets went through. Red liquid was starting to ebb out from underneath him. Emily knelt on one side and Brett on the other.

Marcus’s eyes did not open. His chest did not rise. And he did not respond to Emily as she slapped his face and screamed his name. Brett grabbed Marcus’s hand and yelled for him to wake up. Emily put her fingers to Marcus’s neck.

“We have to start CPR. We have to start CPR!” Brett placed his hands on Marcus’s chest, causing Marcus’s blood to seep up through his fingers.

“Brett.” Emily spoke his name calmly.

“I’ll do compressions. You give breaths!”

“Brett. Brett! It’s too late for that.”

He stopped, looked at Marcus in the face, and then fell back on his butt. He placed his bloody hands on the ground of him to steady himself.

Emily’s fingers were still on Marcus’s neck. She looked up at me through the doorway. Shook her head.

I stepped back and bumped into Denise. I hadn’t realized everyone had gathered behind me. I stepped away.

This was it? This was how the night ended? Evil was to triumph and we were to die?

Hopeless, I looked again out the door at Marcus. His hand lay at his side, scratched and bloody from the glass. It did not move. I willed him to raise that hand for a fistbump. I would have given it. I would have given him a hug if he would just sit up.

I noticed vaguely that the beeping had stopped. Gage’s heart rate must have come down. That did not make me feel safer at all.



A fury I had never known boiled through me and I whirled around to him. “I’m going to kill you.”

He pointed the gun at me. “No, actually, you’re not. I’m still the one with the gun. And I’ve shown I will use it.” He looked at the group. “Everyone back to the table.”

I stared at him, debating the options. I wanted to rush him. I wanted to take the chance regardless of what happened. But if I did and lost (which was likely), it would be that much worse for everyone else.

As we walked back, Emily gasped. “Brett! Your head!”

“What?” He reached back and felt the back of his head, Marcus’s blood still one his hands. “What… in the world?”

His hand moved and I could see. The wound was gone. Completely healed. Not even the stitches still existed.

Brett stared at the blood on his hands. Looked back at us with surprise on his face.

Gage finally broke the silence. “Move. To the table.”

Everyone sat down. I vaguely realized Charlie was nowhere to be seen. But I saw on the faces around me the same fear and despair I felt. I didn’t know how to get out of this situation, but having Marcus here had at least been a comfort. Some weird layer of protection. Now even that was gone.

As usual, Brett was the first to speak. Though this time even he was more subdued. “You’re still not putting my son up there.”

Gage looked at Brett with hatred. The look burned on his face for a moment. He looked at his camera and then faced us again. “You’re right. I’m not.”

The entire table exhaled. Jason put his face in his hands.

But something seemed off to me. “You’re not? Just like that? You quit?”

“Oh, I’m not quitting. I’m just not going to interview Jason.”

“That’s what led to this whole mess! That’s why Marcus is… is…” I didn’t even want to say it.

Then it clicked.

I looked Gage in the eye. “You can’t do it, can you?”


“You can’t interview Jason. It goes back to that boundary thing Marcus mentioned. Whatever this place is… whatever you and Marcus are… there are lines. If Marcus says you can’t do something, you’re not allowed to do it.”

Gage leaned into my face, close enough for me to feel the heat of his breath. “Marcus is dead!

I did not flinch. I did not move. I did not care anymore.

“Then put the kid on the barstool,” I whispered.

I waited for Brett and Denise to object, but they seemed to be catching on to the idea also. Gage looked around at the members of our group. Even Jason held his head up. Gage shook, not with fear, but with fury. I could see it in those gray, thunderstorm eyes.

And I knew my assertion was right.

Gage lifted his arm. Tapped his smart watch several times.

The bomb resumed beeping.

“Wait a minute!” Emily’s voice rose. “You said that bomb would either go off at 4am or if your pulse spiked. Neither of those are happening right now!”

Gage smiled. “I lied.”

Fear tightened my stomach. I forced myself to do what I’d been taught to do. Slow down. Think rationally. Come up with options.

But Gage did not leave time for that. “Very well, then. If Marcus can change the rules, so can I. I won’t interview the boy. New game!”

Gage walked over and grabbed Jason by the back of his collar. Drug him from his chair. Jason cried out at the same time his mom did. Denise stood and Gage put the gun to Jason’s head. “Sit!” She did so.

He pulled Jason across the room. Kicked the camera out of the way. It toppled to the ground by the wall. He reached the bar and shoved Jason toward the barstool right in front of the bomb. Gage screamed in rage again as he pushed all the other items off the bar, including his backpack.

Including my gun.

It landed on the other side of the bar by Emily’s original booth.

“Get on the stool!” Gage yelled.

Crying, Jason climbed up. Stared at the bomb beeping frantically in front of him.

“Disarm it,” Gage ordered.

What?!” Brett’s voice was full of panic.

Gage glared at us. “Let’s find out how smart he really is. He’s got an IQ of 133. This should be easy for him.” He turned back to Jason. “You disarm it correctly, everyone goes home. You do it incorrectly, you kill us all. Get to work.”

Jason was shaking. “I can’t… I don’t know how to do that.”

Then figure it out!

Jason stared into the metal box. Pressed his fingers into his temples.

“I wouldn’t just sit there. You don’t have a lot of time.”

I looked at my gun on the other side of the room. More accessible to me now even though it was farther away. It was not in Gage’s line of vision. Or apparently even on his mind. I needed to get closer.

“Jason.” I stood and started walking across the room. “Marcus made two points right as Gage was pulling in. Do you remember what they were?”

Jason looked at me with tears in his eyes. “No.”

Emily stood and started walking with me. “He said that the truth was the safest place for us to be. Do you remember that, Jason?”

“… Yes.”

Denise rose and grabbed her husband’s hand, pulling him to his feet. They joined us. “And that no matter what we see or hear tonight, we don’t have to be afraid.”

Jason nodded slowly and looked back at the bomb. I could see the lines of concentration on his forehead as he stared at the maze of wires inside the bomb.

The pace of the beeping escalated.

“Not much more time now, Jason,” Gage offered calmly.

“Stop talking to me!” Jason screamed. He leaned to his left and looked inside the bomb. Then his right. Raised a hand to reach inside. But withdrew it before he touched anything. “I can’t do it! There’s no pattern for me to follow! I don’t know how!”

“It’s a Rubik’s cube, buddy.”

We all turned at the sound of Marcus’s voice.

There he stood, just inside the glass door he’s been knocked through. Fully alive. He was still covered in blood. I could still see bullet holes in his shirt. But the skin underneath was pink with life. He walked toward us, pieces of glass falling from his clothing as he moved.

“It’s a Rubik’s cube. You’re good at those, right?” Marcus reached the bar and took the seat beside Jason. He placed Jason’s cube beside the bomb.

I wanted to ask. I wanted to know that had happened. But I somehow knew this was a sacred moment between Marcus and Jason, so I kept my mouth shut. We all did.

Except Gage. “You’re supposed to be dead!”

“Shut up, Gage.”

“No. I will not. This is not how things are supposed to go. I am supposed to–”


The force behind the words felt almost physical and it knocked Gage away from the bar and onto the floor. His gun fell from his hand and slid away. I took the moment to move closer to my gun. Five feet now.

The order was the loudest thing Marcus had said all night, and a quiet respect enveloped us as he continued his conversation with Jason.

“What’s your favorite color again? Which color do you solve for?”

Jason looked down at the colored wires inside the bomb. “Red.”

“Then pull the red wire.”

Jason lifted his hand but froze again. “Why do I have to do it?”

“Because I want you to know that you can.”

“If you know which wire to pull, why can’t you just do it yourself?”

“I can. But it’s really important for you to learn that fear is lying to you about everything.”

Jason continued to shake and hesitate. “Are you sure? Because I’m really scared.”

Marcus leaned in. Placed a hand on either side of Jason’s face. Pulled his gaze away from the bomb and into those blue-green eyes. “Can you feel my hands on your face right now?”

Jason’s head nodded in Marcus’s hands.

“I’m not dead, am I?”

Jason smiled and shook his head.

“Do you remember when you asked me if I was special?”


Marcus returned the smile. “You’re special too. But you’ve known that for a while, haven’t you?”

Jason slowly nodded again.

“Pull the red wire, Jason.” He removed his hands from Jason’s face.

Jason looked back at the beeping bomb. The tears continued. The hesitation. The fear. “How do I know you’re right?”

“Because I’ve been right every time I’ve told you to solve for red. We’ve practiced this.”

Jason’s eyes widened and he looked Marcus in the face again.

“And because I will never, ever lie to you, Jason.”

A tear fell down Jason’s cheek. He lifted a fist. “Promise?”

A matching tear fell down Marcus’s cheek. He touched the fist with his own. “I promise.”

Jason reached into the bomb.

I dove over Emily, pushing her to the ground.

Brett did the same with Denise, and I could hear her scream her son’s name as they fell.

Gage roared in anger.

Jason pulled the red wire.

The diner itself seemed to hold its breath…

The beeping stopped. But nothing else happened.

No explosion, no fire, no death.

Marcus was right.

I lay on top of Emily, just breathing, not realizing until then how frantic I was. The pace of my inhales and exhales was faster than I could keep up with, and I forced myself to slow things down. I lifted my head.

Brett and Denise were holding each other and looking around. Gage sat on the ground, angry but quiet. Jason was in Marcus’s arms, sobbing in relief.

I was still covering Emily. She shifted and looked into my eyes. Face inches from mine. “I don’t think it’s going to explode.”

“Okay.” The moment had taken all other words from me..

She smiled. “You can get off me now, Daniel.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”

I got to my feet and looked around. Gage was moving for his gun.

Marcus was right again. What he’d said hours ago. I knew what to do. Instinct took over.

I reached my gun just as Gage was pointing his at the back of Jason’s head. I raised my weapon and fired two shots. Center of mass. Both right on target. The force knocked Gage into the wall behind him and he dropped the gun again. He collapsed on the floor and I raced over. Kicked his gun away from us. Kept my gun on him as I reached under his chin and felt his pulse fade away.

The body didn’t even bleed.

Everyone watched the ending happen. The moment was a collective exhale. Brett and Denise rushed to their son and held him. Marcus wrapped his arms around all three. I reached over and pulled Emily into a hug and felt the warmth as she returned it.

No one moved. I wasn’t sure how long we all stayed still holding each other, but it was lengthy. For the first time all night, we were just breathing. Processing. Feeling.


Jason eventually walked over to Gage’s body. Marcus joined him.

“You were never afraid of him,” Jason noted. “You always seemed really confident. He couldn’t bully you. Why?”

“Because fear bows to love. Always. It is non-negotiable. There can be no fear in love. Gage and I cannot occupy the same space in your heart. As you so beautifully showed us a few moments ago.”

The two turned around and faced the rest of us.

“Can we go home now?” Jason asked.

“You bet, buddy,” Brett pulled him into another hug.



We walked out the shattered door of the diner and I was the only one to glance back. I looked at the red and black and stainless steel, now forever changed by what had happened here. Gage’s body still lay where he had fallen. “Do we just leave him behind?”

“He is the embodiment of fear, Daniel,” Marcus answered. “Always leave him behind.”

He thanked Charlie for his help and the cook walked back inside. Turning, Marcus addressed the group. “When you leave, drive north. You’ll hit some static or some rain” — he glanced at the Robertsons — “and after that you’ll be in familiar territory.”

“Where are we?” Emily asked.

Marcus looked at the front of the diner. “Inside a snapshot of a world more real than yours.”

“Will we ever see this place again?” Denise asked.


“Will we ever see you again?” Jason asked.

Marcus smiled. “Yes. But I may not look like this.”

Our group spread out as we reached the parking lot, each of us going to our own vehicles. It was still dark, but the first edges of light were beginning to paint the horizon. I watched the Robertsons get to their car and waved, our goodbyes having been said inside. Jason had already pulled out his Rubik’s cube and was working on it again.

Emily grabbed my hand as we headed toward our vehicles. I stopped and turned to look at her. “This is not the place I would have chosen to meet you, but I’m glad I did.”

She laughed. “Same. So… where do we go from here?”

“I think he said north.”

“You know what I mean.”

I leaned closer. “How about I take you out to dinner soon? Maybe not diner food though.”

She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. “It’s a date,” she whispered.

She turned and climbed into the ambulance.

I reached my car just as Marcus reached his truck beside me. I glanced back at the diner. Glory Days still burned neon against the black sky.

“They’re ahead of you.”

I turned to him. “What’s ahead of me?”

“Your best days. They aren’t behind you. They aren’t before the Hudson case. They’re ahead of you.”

I nodded, but still had a question in my heart. “How do I know you’re right?” I realized as soon as the words came out of my mouth that it was the same question Jason had asked, hovering over the bomb.

And Marcus’s answer was the same, too. “Because I will never, ever lie to you, Daniel.” He raised a fist. “I promise.”

I touched my knuckles to his.



© 2020 Andy Brodrick