As Bryant crept past the vehicle, the car engine was still seething with steam and hissing at pellets of rain that dropped on its hood. Jeff remained against the wall below the teller’s window, knees up to his face, head down. The so-called hostages were sitting against the opposite wall from Jeff. There was a mixture of tellers and customers all watching Bryant step through the opening with wide eyes. His footsteps crunched shattered glass against the tile floor and the slower Bryant went, the louder the crunch. Red and white lights flickered across Jeff’s frame as the gun dangled from his right hand like a stuffed animal about to fall from a sleeping child’s grip.
Bryant stopped thirty feet from Jeff and decided to sit and cross his legs. He didn’t want to startle the boy once he came out of his trance. The hostages all looked at Bryant with questions in their eyes. They didn’t know if he was a policeman, a hostage negotiator, or the boy’s dad. They seemed to search for direction. Bryant motioned them to stay still.
Jeff was a stringy-looking kid with long hair and a narrow face. He gripped a handful of that hair unconsciously as he rocked gently to an invisible beat. Bryant waited, questioning his own mindset. He was in no great position to be counseling anyone, especially a schizophrenic with a gun.
Jeff looked up and seemed to notice his surroundings for the first time. The hostages shrank back and glanced at Bryant for help. That’s when Jeff turned to his right and saw the psychiatrist. He pointed the gun at Bryant.
“What’re you doing here?” Jeff blurted.
Bryant sucked in a quick breath and held out a hand. “Please, keep the gun if you want, but just don’t point it. Okay?”
Jeff examined the weapon with uncertainty.
Bryant trembled with the passing seconds, knowing that a gunshot could blast a hole through Jeff’s head at any moment.
“Please, Jeff. Don’t point,” Bryant pleaded.
Jeff was taking too long. Bryant knew he was coming out of a deep psychological delusion and he needed time to adjust to his new reality.
“I’m begging you, Jeff. Please lower the gun.” Bryant glanced outside to see Roger’s eye glued to his gun sight, while his arms clutched his rifle tight, his muscles flexing with desire. Bryant waved his hands in a universal plea for patience and got a blank stare from Meltzer in return. His stomach tumbled in a free fall.
“Why are you here?” Jeff asked, clearly unaware of the danger he was in.
“I need your help,” Bryant said. “But that gun is scaring me. Could you hold it in your lap for me?”
Jeff’s eyes were unfocused. He was startled and disoriented and it was obvious that he desperately needed medication. Bryant had pushed him to the brink of recovery, only to abandon him at his most vulnerable segment of therapy.
“Why do you care?” Jeff waved the gun around as he spoke, oblivious to the risk it posed. “You’re leaving me, just like everyone else does.”
“I know.” Bryant lowered his head, ready for the explosion of gunfire. “This is all my fault. I was selfish.”
A few moments of silence passed. Bryant thought he heard sniffling. He looked up to see Jeff’s face scrunched up tight, tears flowing down his cheeks. His neck muscles were stressed from a clenched jaw. More importantly, the gun was pointed down.
“How could you?” Jeff murmured between sobs. “How could you . . .”
It was painful for Bryant to watch the boy struggle with his condition. Bryant waited for the reprimand he’d deserved, but was surprised when Jeff looked over at him with a familiar expression.
“How could you live without them?” Jeff said with swollen eyes. “Kate and Megan. How?”
It hit Bryant like a shot of adrenalin to his nervous system. His throat tightened and his nose filled with moisture that had consistently packed his wastebaskets with tissues.
Bryant’s voice cracked. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you miss them?”
“Of course I do.” Bryant’s eyes were already so flooded with tears, he couldn’t see Jeff clearly anymore.
“It doesn’t make any sense, does it? One drunk driver takes away your entire family. How can that happen?”
Bryant looked down, seeing nothing but a blurry floor. How could he explain the unexplainable? “I guess we’re all just a phone call away from our knees.”
“Then why go on? Why bother?”
Even with the gut-wrenching emotion flowing through his system, Bryant understood the underlying sentiment. Jeff was asking for permission to die. Bryant couldn’t afford to lose him. Not Jeff. Not another innocent kid.
“I wake up every morning wondering that very question,” Bryant said, wiping his face with his fingers. “I feel small and insignificant. I honestly don’t want to live another day.”
Jeff watched carefully, nodding along, agreeing with him.
“Then,” Bryant took a long breath. “Then there are days like today, when I see someone like you who needs me. And if I could help that person . . . if I could get that person to stay alive for just one more day. Then it gives me a great sense of satisfaction.”
Jeff’s brow furrowed. “But I thought you were quitting. You’re not going to be here.”
“I am closing my practice, but I could still see you. Nothing is permanent.”
The boy looked confused. He seemed to sift through the words for hypocrisy. “I don’t understand. I don’t have to see Dr. Sullivan? I could stay with you?”
“Yes,” Bryant said. “But listen. Can we talk about this alone?” He glanced over at the audience of onlookers against the far wall. Some of them were dabbing a tissue to their nose.
Jeff seemed dubious. “You’re trying to trick me.”
“No,” Bryant said firmly, attempting to chase that thought from the boy’s head. It was the hardest part of dealing with schizophrenia. To get rid of a thought.
Jeff looked outside. He craned his neck to view the sky. His expression changed again. This time he seemed frightened. “Those clouds are still there.”
“Are there really aliens in them?”
The local news ran with a story of a girl claiming there were alien invaders residing in the clouds. As the rain persisted, the story had gained in popularity with the mainstream press. Scientists weren’t making it any easier when they couldn’t explain how a rain cell could remain stagnant for so many days. Bryant had to be careful, however, not to dismiss Jeff’s paranoia.
“I don’t know what those clouds are,” Bryant said. “It could be the end of everything we know, or it could be the answers we’ve all been looking for. Or it could simply be a lingering storm system that keeps getting pushed back into Chandler. But, no matter what it is, nothing is going to change by what you do inside this bank.”
Jeff seemed to contemplate this.
“Jeff,” Bryant said. “I can’t afford to lose you.”
Jeff’s eyes were glossy and unresponsive.
“Look at me,” Bryant commanded.
The boy lowered his head between his knees. The gun dangled from his fingers. Bryant thought about charging him and getting the gun, but it was too risky. Too many variables. He’d seen Jeff in this phase and it never lasted. Bryant was confident he could still resolve this with words. His peripheral vision found a man against the opposite wall getting to his knees. At first Bryant thought he was preparing to run for the door, but the man crouched forward directly at Jeff.
“No,” Bryant barked at the man.
The guy glanced at the psychiatrist for just a moment, but seemed determined to make his move. He was closer to Jeff, only twenty feet away. The boy’s mind was elsewhere, but could return at any moment. Bryant looked outside and caught Meltzer’s attention, but the detective’s expression was that of resignation. He was too far away to control anything inside the bank.
The man began his charge. His leather soles slipped on the polished tile and gave Bryant an opening. He charged toward the man’s intended path, taking the angle he’d learned as a college cornerback. The man gained his footing and was halfway there now, with a gritty expression. Bryant lunged as the man dove for the gun. One of the female hostages screamed. Bryant wrapped his arms around the man’s legs, causing the man’s leap to come up a foot short. He landed with a thud. Bryant rolled to his side and turned to see Jeff pointing the gun down at the man who was now lying helplessly in front of him like a pig on a spit. Jeff’s expression was passionless. He seemed like a little boy staring at a snake, unsure how to act.
Bryant jumped to his feet and stood directly in front of Jeff. He positioned himself between Jeff and the sharpshooter. Behind him, he heard Roger growl for him to move, but Bryant wasn’t going anywhere. He would welcome a bullet in the back to save this kid.
“Don’t do this to me,” Bryant said, looking down at Jeff, watching the boy stare at the man who was sobbing and murmuring words of forgiveness.
“Please, Jeff,” Bryant’s chest tightened and he sucked in short, weak breaths. He was going to hyperventilate if he didn’t get hold of himself.
The boy’s eyes swelled with new tears. He was back. But it was too much for his mind to grasp. Bryant needed to break it down to simpler terms. Jeff’s psyche was in no position to contemplate anything big.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Bryant said. “I’m not quite sure I want to go on myself, but if you help me get you out of here, I’ll promise to live one more day.”
Jeff cocked his head and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Just one more day,” Bryant repeated. “Will you live one more day with me?”
Jeff looked around at the situation. The man groveling at his feet. The hostages watching with horrified expressions. The mangled nose of his car poking through the entrance to the bank like a bulldog peaking through a doggie door. He looked up at Bryant with a questioning expression.
Bryant held up his index finger. “Just one more day.”