Storyglossia Issue 44, May 2011.

The Choice

by Ashley Cowger


There are two of them: one in a mask fashioned of a wrinkled, brown shopping bag with holes cut out to reveal two tiny pinpricks of blue, and the other in a mask cut out of black cloth. The cloth mask has a slit for a mouth and two gaping holes around the eyes, and it's pressed to his face and tied around the back of his head. I can almost make out his features when he turns his head and the light shines through the cloth, but even then, the features are dim and hazy, almost grotesque.

The man in the shopping bag ties Beth's hands behind her back with what appears to be a series of magician's colorful scarves knotted together end to end, and then he pushes her onto her stomach on the bed. The other man, the one with the cloth draped over his face, does the same to me. The scarves or whatever they are slide easily along my wrists like silk. Face down on the bed, I try to turn my head to look at Beth, but something cold and hard presses into the back of my head. I know it must be a gun, even though I've had no reason, in my life up to now, to know what a gun would feel like pressed against the back of my head as the person holding it cocks the hammer.

He doesn't say anything, but I take the hint and press my face into the quilt. He uncocks the gun and pulls it back.

"Please." Beth's voice is somehow calm, her tone unwavering. "Take whatever you want, but please don't hurt us."

I hear another gun cocking and a sharp intake of breath. I can't see what's going on, but I squeeze my eyes closed anyway. Thick, sticky tears pool inside my closed lids. I want to wipe them off against the quilt but don't want another gun pressed against my head, so I do nothing.

"You want to play, lady? Pretty lady? Hmm? You want to play?" One of the men asks, and then both of them follow the question with convulsive laughter.

Beth doesn't say anything, and I wonder if she's crying too.

It takes forever for the gun to go uncocked, and then the men leave us alone in the room for what feels like a very long time. We can hear things moving around in other rooms, floorboards popping, mumbles and laughter. I open my eyes and think about saying something to Beth. We're going to get out of this just fine, or maybe just, Don't worry. But I can't decide what to say, so I just lie here and breathe in and out and listen to my own heart pounding in my ears.

After a while, they come back, or one of them does anyway. The bed depresses and my body pulls toward Beth a bit. Beth stifles a sob.

"Shhh," the man says. "There there."

I hear the rustling of fabric and Beth's sobs. "Please," Beth says, her voice so strangled it's barely recognizable.

What follows is a prolonged, palpable silence. There is nothing but the erratic, heavy beating of my heart, my own quick breaths, my own unspoken pleas. Finally, there is the sound, again, of a gun cocking.

"You want to play a game with me, lady?"

"Please, just leave us alone," Beth says. Her voice sounds defeated.

"I'm going to let you decide," he says, "which of you two ladies will live."

My stomach freezes and then disappears, and my heartbeat fades into an almost undetectable thing in the distance. Now all I can hear is Beth's thin breaths as she lays there for a moment and makes up her mind.

Suddenly, my senses are flooded with details. The batting of the quilt, scratchy against my skin, is exposed around the hem, and it smells like a fabric softener that is meant to smell like freshly cut grass. I breathe it in so deeply I can taste it in my mouth. I notice this at the same time as I notice the breeze blowing through the half-open window, at the same time as I hear the sound of birds conversing with each other outside. In a space that must not last more than a few seconds, I notice all these things and more, commit them all to memory, because I know without a doubt in my mind that I'm about to die. I know it, because I know what I would say if I were Beth. I love Beth, and Beth loves me. Still, I know that, given the choice, I would choose to live.

I squeeze my eyes shut again and wait for the cold metal to press against my head.

But it doesn't.

Beth says to me, "Tell Izzy I love him." To the man, she says, "Take me."

Then comes a gunshot.

A wet splatter.

A ringing in my ears.

Somewhere in the room I hear what sounds like the mewling of a cat. I realize, in a removed sort of way, that the sound is coming from me. Beneath it, I hear the pattering of feet, the slam of car doors, tires peeling out in front of the house. The mewling sound slows, fades, then finally stops. It's replaced by gasps for breath between uncontrollable sobbing. Even though it's obvious that it's safe to move now, I don't. I lie here in the same position: hands tied behind my back, face dropped down to the bed. I just lie here alone with Beth's dead body, her last words repeating over and over in my mind like an accusation.

Copyright©2011 Ashley Cowger

Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize in 2010. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is editor and cofounder of the online journal, MFA/MFYou, and she holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Learn more at