Story prompt: headphones
Bucky Bukowski wasn’t a bad guy. To be fair, he wasn’t a good guy, either. He was simply rudderless, adrift in a sea of moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas. He was a person who might help an old lady to cross the street, but then it was fifty-fifty whether he’d snatch her purse and run. He was a feather in a windstorm, a leaf riding the crest of floodwaters. Rather than make a choice or take a stand, he’d just go with the flow.
Which, in a way, explains his current situation. Specifically, pointing a gun at some guy he stumbled upon in an uptown alley. Bucky didn’t need any money, but this young man looked like he might have some, what with his preppy clothes and big black headphones, so what the hell. Bucky had emerged from the shadows, pistol raised, and demanded the cash. The frightened man in front of him had given him the bad news and stood quaking in his Birkenstocks, hands raised high over his head.
“Did I tell you to put your hands up?” said Bucky in an annoyed voice.
“I don’t remember. Did you?”
“No, I didn’t! Now put them down! You’re making a scene! And check again!”
“I don’t need to. I never carry any. I’m afraid I might get mugged.”
“Well, that makes no sense, does it?! Somebody comes along to rob you, it’s just a simple transaction. You give ’em your cash and they run off. But if you got no cash, you can’t hold up your end of the deal, can you?! Like as not, your antagonist is apt to feel vexed and you’ll end up catching a beating which you would’ve gladly paid to avoid. You’ll wish you’d planned ahead then, by God!”
“Will I? Will you? I mean are you?”
“Blithering isn’t helping, son. Let’s have it! Spit it out!”
“I mean, are you vexed, and will you beat me now, and will I wish I’d planned ahead, by God?”
“No, I’m not in the beating mood today. Look,” said Bucky, slipping his gun into his waist. He reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here’s five bucks. Stick it in your pocket and keep it there. It’s not much, but it should be enough to save you from a beating.”
His stick-up victim let the bill rest in his palm, looking at it like it was a two-headed snake. “This doesn’t seem right,” he said. “I’m afraid it might reflect badly on you and your reputation as a crook. I’ll tell you what,” he said, removing his headphones from his ears. “Take these. If anyone asks, you can say you stole them.”
“Hey, now! I don’t need your charity, and I sure as hell don’t need your big, ugly headphones.”
“But you might. These aren’t your everyday, run of the mill headphones!”
“How do you mean?”
“These ones… they’ll change your life.” He held out the headphones, and there was a look of desperation in his eyes.
Bucky was suspicious, but he was also curious. Maybe just a little too curious. His life could use a little changing.
The young man leaned forward, extending his hand with the headphones like he was offering food to a stray dog. “You want excitement? Danger? Risking your life for crazy reasons? Maybe criminal reasons?”
Bucky couldn’t resist. He snatched them away and took a step back, drawing his pistol and pointing it at the wide-eyed man in front of him. He flipped the headphones back and forth, looking at them from every angle.
“Some kind of low-frequency radio, I think.”
“How do I turn them on?”
“They’re always on. Just wear them.”
Awkwardly, Bucky slipped them on with one hand while he pointed his gun with the other. When they rested securely over his ears he heard the voice.
“Welcome, Player 2. Listen carefully. Rule number one: you may receive three, and only three, warnings. Rule number two: you may never remove the headphones at any time for any reason. Rule number…”
Bucky reached up and grabbed the headphones, yanking them from his head. Immediately, there was the crack of gunfire and a bullet pinged off the concrete at his feet. Bucky whirled, pointing his pistol in all directions but saw nothing. He turned his attention to the young man standing in front of him who was moving his arms and hands, frantically miming the act of putting something on his head and over his ears.
Bucky cautiously put the headphones back on and immediately heard the voice, speaking calmly.
“You have two left. Rule number three: you can only pass on the headphones if they are openly given and freely received.”
The young man seemed to know exactly what Bucky was hearing and he said, “Sorry.” By the look on his face it was clear that he meant it. Bucky shrugged, as if to say, it is what it is.
“Now,” said the voice, “with your handgun, shoot that young man.”
Bucky looked startled. He said, “What?! No way!”
The rifle fired, this time striking the tip of his shoe and painfully removing most of a toe. As Bucky yelled and hopped on one foot, he could still hear the voice. “You have one left.”
He quickly regained his composure and tried to balance on one leg. He looked into the sad eyes of the man in front of him, a man he didn’t know but one he was coming to understand. “Sorry,” he said, and he meant it. The well-dressed young man, quaking in his Birkenstocks, shrugged, as if to say, it is what it is.
Bucky extended the gun, his arm rigid. What could he do? He had no choice. He grimaced, hating what would come next. He lowered his eyes, unable to look at this stranger, now the only person who might understand what he was going through. When he looked down, he saw the feet in those Birkenstocks. Each foot was still healing from the recent loss of a toe. He’d used up all his warnings.
Bucky let his gaze drift upward. The two men stood face to face, their eyes locked. Bucky spoke, maybe to himself, maybe to the other, maybe to the headphones.
“There’s always a choice.”
A gun fired.