The Third Strike

by Cornelius Hampton

The night was cold and heavy. The winds bragged on how frigid it was in its high-pitched whistle. Giant snowflakes fell from the sky and surfed the breeze to a pearl white ground. Jack Frost was being merciless this night. Young Michael James roamed the streets feeling his life slip into jeopardy. Surviving long enough to see daybreak wasn't possible, he needed food and shelter fast. Cutting his way through the foot high snowdrift, Michael slips on a patch of black ice. The snow cushioned his fall. Once he managed to regain his footing and cleaned off the snow that clung to his clothing, he noticed something black and metallic lying in the snow. Winters dandruff still partially concealed it, but once the cold steel was in his hands he knew what it was, a pistol. Michael held the gun in both hands as the cold winds licked at his knuckles. While standing in front of the vacant hospital, Osteopathic, a hard gust blew by and his stomach vibrated from hunger. It was then that he got the idea; he was going to take the gun and rob the 7-11 just up the street.

Climbing the steel guardrail that outlined the parking lot, Michael sees a bum sitting in the snow next to the dumpster on the stores eastside. He began taking deep breaths through his nose and exhaling out his mouth in an effort to calm his nerves. His hands shook uncontrollably, but not as much from the cold as it was for what he was about to do. His mind had been made, and he was going to follow through. Ignoring the bum, he strolled past him, never giving him a second glance. He turned the corner, walking toward the front door, grabs the handle with his left hand, and the pistol with his right. "Hold on there, young blood." Startled, Michael turned to see the bum standing next to the door on his right.

"What you got there?"

"Who wants to know?"

"Just a concerned old man. No one important."

"Well, mind ya business, unimportant old man."

"I'm just trying to keep you from making a mistake, young blood. That's all."

"What part of mind ya own did you not understand old dude?"

"Oh, I understood quite well, but I don't think you understand the peril you're putting yourself in."

"No, I don't think you understand. My life is already in peril if I don't eat and get out this cold."

"Look, let's cut to the chase, young blood. If you go in their and do what it is your thinking about doing, you won't be coming out."

"Is that so?"

"It is so," the bum repeated.

"And who are you suppose to be, the fuzz," Michael responded with a smile.

"I'm no cop. Nevertheless, you should listen to me."

"That's funny. Me listen to a bum, yeah right. You look as if you should've listened to someone along time ago."

"If you don't wanna hear me out, then at least, listen to this. You have three chances to leave this thing alone. If you fail to make the right choice, your FATHER will no longer be with you. Ya dig."

"Whatever man."

Michael pulled the pistol from his pocket and rushed inside, "Break yo'self." The clerk froze in her tracks. Fear latched on to her spine quick like crazy glue. "Give the money up before I put you down." He pressed the barrel of gun into the clerk's forehead. Then everything went black.

Michael woke up lying on his back looking into the night sky. Confusion and anger mixed, the makings for a frustration cocktail, and he drank every drop down straight. His breathing grew heavy, and each breath fell to the ground. For a second, he forgot where he was. Then the familiar face of his friend, the bum, hovered over him, and he remembered. He popped up from the snowy ground like some sort of jack in the box. Sweat saturated his brow and the cold breeze made ice cubes of the salty droplets. "What in the hell..." Michael turned to see the bum eyeing him suspiciously.

"What happened?"

"You don't wanna know."

"The hell if know what, your right. I don't wanna know." He checked his pockets for the gun and found it where he had last touched it. Without hesitation, Michael went after the door for another try.

"Hey, young blood."

"What do you want, man?"

"That was one."

"One what?"

"That's all I'ma say."

"Good. I'm tired of hearing you talk."

"Come on, young man, don't do this again."

"Do what? I didn't do it last time remember. I woke up out here, talking to you again."

"Believe it or not, that was a good thing."

"You would think so, wouldn't you?" Michael replied.

"Yeah well, you'll see soon enough."

Michael flung the door open and ran in with his pistol already aimed at the clerks head. "This is a stick up. Everybody get face down, and you won't..." A stiff blackness broadsided him, and there he was on the ground again. In the snow, starring up into a star filled sky. The bum stood over him once again, but this time he held up two fingers, signifying Michael's second mistake. "You have got to be kidding me", said Michael as he got up off the snow filled ground.

"What in the hell is going on here?"

"You're wasting, boss. You're wasting opportunities."

"I'm trying to take advantage of some opportunities here, but something weird is going on."

"You have it all wrong, young blood. The opportunities I am speaking of cannot be found inside that store. What I am speaking of is much more important than anything you can find in there. So let this go, and come with me, young blood."

"You can forget that. You're homeless too, where can we go."

"Away from here, young blood. Come on, trust me."

"Thanks, but I'll pass. As you can see I've got something else to do."

"Ok, young blood, I'ma say this one last time. If you go back in there, to do this thing, you will not be coming out. Please, do not go back in there."

"Nice try, old dude, but I got business." Michael took the gun from his pocket and eyed the five patrons inside. He waited until all five where near the front of the store. He did not want any surprises. The twelve or so florescent lights filled the stores interior with a brilliant radiance. The huge front windows allowed that brightness to spill out into the parking lot, making it easy for Michael to see everything from his vantage point. As he walked toward the door he heard the bum say one last time, "Please don't do this", but Michael ignored him. "Prison isn't even a shadow of where you're going", ended the bum. The weight of those words slightly caught Michael's attention, but he just let them roll right off without any consideration.

He reached for the door. Five heads turned to watch him enter. He locked eyes with each one as he went in, but as soon as his feet crossed the threshold into the store, everything changed. The light filled room was now dim and drab. The shelves, which were all full a second ago, were now empty. Open wrappers of all sorts were scattered everywhere on the stores floor. The smell of window cleaner mixed with the sent of melted cheese and chili pasted was absent. Only the strong sent of rotting flesh and sulfur filled the air. The little bit of light that remained flickered on and off repeatedly, giving witness to the thin mist of smoke that was filling the store. The temperature inside climbed past 115 degrees in less than half the time he was in there. Sweat began falling from his brow. The temperature kept rising. The oxygen in the room became more and more scarce. Now the air was heavy forcing Michael to cough with every breath. Sweat and saliva rolled from his chin as his gag reflex became more violent. His lunges were rejecting the air, but it was all there was to breath. The temperature kept rising. The slurpee machines were boiling over. The soft drink fountains were melting. The place was now empty. There was no one in site. The five patrons were gone, and the clerks were gone. Michael was now the only one inside, so he thought. Just then, the bum walks in. He never faces Michael. He just walks in and heads for the freezers. The temperature kept rising. What he saw next more than scared him. Michael looked out into the parking lot, where he had just come from, and sees nothing but a sea of souls buried in the scorching hot ground up to their necks. His jaw fell to the floor. The bum opened a freezer door, and the glass fogged over as if it was cold inside. Michael couldn't see past the clouded window of the freezer, but he saw what the bum now had in his hand, an ice cold Gatorade. The temperature kept rising.

"What in the hell is going on?"

"Hell is exactly what's going on. I told you not to do this, but you wouldn't listen. I even gave you three chances to change your mind, but you refused. Now it is over for you."

"Over, what do you mean, over? What's over?"

You, young blood, you're over. Your time, your games, your life, is over." With that, the bum walks out of the store. Michael frantically tries to follow, but he trips over something lying on the floor. It was the body of a man. With shaking hand, he bends down to turn the poor soul over to see who he was. To Michael's surprise, he knew the person on the floor. Once he looked into those empty eyes, those soulless windows, he knew who the person was, however his mind couldn't handle the truth. He drew his hand back with the speed of a bullet. His heart stopped at the sight of him lying on the ground with a nickel size hole in his forehead. He was killed on his first trip inside; the other two were gifts, a blessing. He denied himself a gift that came directly from the LORDS hand. Michael began to cry a soul-wrenching sob. He was so overcome with grief that he never noticed his pant leg lighting off into a flame.

"Please, help me", Michael screams.

"I tried to help you, but you refused. I even offered to take you to heaven with me, but you refused. Yes, you were going to die today, but you did not have to come here", the inhumanly loud voice bounced off the walls of Michaels mind. The bum was standing halfway in and halfway out the store. Michael could see that where the bum stood everything was normal, but everything Michael saw through the glass was somewhere else, someplace unworldly. The bum released the doors handle from his grasp, and it began to swing close, locking Michael inside for an eternity.

"Please, don't leave me. I'm sorry. I'll listen."

"I know you're sorry. At this point, everyone is, but there is nothing that can be done for you now. You are truly on your own."

"Where am I, and who are you?"

"I told you. You're in hell, and my name is Michael the Archangel of GOD."

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