Antihero Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Maria Dean

Runner Up
It's All In The Eyes
Antihero Short Story Competition


Maria Dean lives in Yorkshire with her husband and two children. She doesn’t have any fancy credentials or impressive writing qualifications; she just has a passion for storytelling and an overused laptop. This is her second win for WM, and she is delighted that her work has received recognition.


It's All In The Eyes By Maria Dean

Bethany is standing by the new paying-in machine. She has been given the crappy job of trying to persuade the people in the queue to use the machine, but not one of them is under eighty; they think internet banking is the work of the devil, so the concept of a machine being able to pay money in for them may as well be a hole in the wall that leads straight to hell.
     She shouldn’t grumble, it is only day three of her new job. Yes, it is boring and yes, she can do so much more, but given where her head has been for the last few months, this is a step in the right direction to getting her life back on track. At least she hasn’t been asked to make tea for everyone yet.
     She is expecting a slow morning. She is wrong.
Seth is the one who enters the bank first. He feels the familiar rush of adrenaline as the gun comes out of his pocket. There is no time for hesitancy. Although he’s done this numerous times, it’s always been on his terms: his men, his plan, his choice. But today is different. As soon as the door is open and his Nike trainers are over the threshold, he has his gun in the air and ownership of the room.
     He tells everyone to get on the floor. Two women and one man are in the queue, all over eighty and each as frail as a dried-up autumn leaf. He thinks of his gran back in Ireland and how she would have torn a strip off him if she knew what he was doing right this minute. Seth has met all manner of vile people in his time, but none has ever put the fear of God in him like his gran. He shakes the image of his gran away. He just needs to get this job done. But then what? He can’t imagine that McGovern will be happy with just the one job. Seth knows this is the first of many. As long as his brother is inside, Seth is in the palm of McGovern’s unyielding hand.  
Bethany watches in stunned silence as the three men spread through the room like a disease, their balaclavas making them look like identical triplets. The taller one has taken centre stage, issuing orders with the help of his gun. The smaller of the trio secures the entrance and the third points his gun at the cashiers. Reality slowly beds in: this is real, in broad daylight, in the middle of the bank. It is a robbery, a heist, a good old-fashioned hold-up and she is right in the centre of it.
     She gets down on the floor, puts her hands behind her head, and wonders if she’ll ever get up again.
Seth had had one request about the job: no casualties. He knew the guns were needed but that didn’t stop his dislike of them. He doesn’t like using them with his own men, people that he trusts. Here, with McGovern’s goons, he feels unnerved. People change once they have a gun in their hand, he of all people knows this.
     Seth looks at the people on the floor making sure their heads are down before he turns and leans over the desk. He spots a guy on the floor who is wearing a light grey suit.
     “Hey, suit, get up slowly,” Seth barks, his gun trained on the man. The man does as he is told. He is tall and wiry, and Seth knows that he could push this guy with the tip of his little finger, and he would fall to the ground crying like a baby.
     Seth glances at his shiny name badge and imagines what it must feel like when he pins it on every morning.  
     “Gareth, you know how this works, right?” he asks as he slings two holdalls onto the counter.
     Gareth nods slowly as if he is scared his neck might snap. “I’ll need to come round the other side of the counter to get the bags,” he whimpers, his bottom lip quivering at the thought of leaving the safety of the Perspex barricade. Seth examines the desk and sees that the Perspex goes all the way to the top of the ceiling. Another ridiculous modification due to Covid, Seth thinks. Although it has had its pros, facemask being a Godsend: now everyone looks like a criminal.
     He looks Gareth up and down.
     He doesn’t want him moving from where he is. He could press an alarm. Better to have someone on this side deliver the bags, that way he can see what’s going on. He can’t send one of McGovern’s men, they can’t risk getting trapped behind the desk if the police show.
     He looks around the room and his eyes land on Bethany.
Even with her face pressed hard against the floor, Bethany can feel the eyes glaring at her. She knows he is coming for her, knows that she is going to have to make her body move, but fear and panic have settled into her limbs weighing her down like stones in a sack. She knows that sometimes it is better to play dead.  
It takes Seth three large strides to reach Bethany. He points his gun at her back and tells her to get up.
      She doesn’t move.
     “Hey, lady, get up, now,” he commands, but still, she just lies there.
     Finch, who is supposed to be watching the door, marches over to Bethany.
     “We ain’t got time for this,” he yells, his eyes wide and dangerous. Seth watches, sickened as Finch kicks her in the ribs, grabs a handful of her hair, and pulls her to standing.  She yelps and it is like the flick of a switch.
     Seth sees red.
     He aims the gun at Finch.
     “Let go of her, now.”
     Finch glares at him before a slick grin expands across his face.
     “Or what? You gonna shoot me?” he laughs. “And what do you think the boss will make of that? When you come back with no money and me in a body bag. You think he’s still gonna keep his side of the bargain, huh, keep your little brother safe inside?”
     Seth sees his little brother falling off his bike, Seth running over to pick him up and rub his knees and tell him that it’s ok and there’s no need to cry.  
     Seth lowers his gun.
     “I didn’t think so,” Finch smirks. Seth grinds his teeth and grips his gun until his knuckles are white.
     “We got about six minutes before the sirens boys, let's wrap this up,” Hollins calls from over by the desk.
     Finch doesn’t take his eyes off Seth.
Bethany’s scalp is burning. There are tears in her eyes and her head is swimming. It’s all too familiar, the pull on her hair, the commanding tone. She’s been here before. Fear is turning to anger. It boils inside her until she feels it brimming at the edges of her blurred vision. She wants to charge but she is smart enough to note the shift in the room. She looks at the guy who is standing in front of her. She can’t see his face because of the balaclava, but she can see his eyes. And that is all that she needs.
Seth is livid. Seth is torn. Thoughts of his little brother rotting in Folkstone prison engulf him. He’s been there himself, knows what these places are like. It’s never what you know. Always who. It can make or break a man. And it nearly broke him. Nearly.
     He is about to throw the bags to Finch, do as he is told, and be a good boy when he notices the woman looking at him. He knows that look, feels its acquaintance, and knows he has a split second to make his choice.
It’s not like it was in her self defence class. She is alert and in pain and her fight instinct has kicked in. The guy who is holding her hair is standing behind her. She places both her hands on the top of the hand that is holding her hair and she bends her knees to lower her body. Before he realises what she is doing, she twists her body around quickly. She hears the crack of his bones as his wrist breaks a fraction of a second before he starts screaming.        
Seth doesn’t have time to be impressed. He launches himself forward intending on grabbing the gun from Finch, but Finch is fast. He turns and points the gun at the woman, his teeth bared, hissing spittle as if the pain is bubbling out of his mouth. Seth doesn’t have time to think. It’s a game of quick draw.
     Seth fires.
Bethany is wrapped in a thick blue blanket that the young officer has given her. She isn’t cold, but even so, she pulls it tight around her shoulders.
     “I want to go talk to him,” she tells the policeman who is standing next to the ambulance.
     “I don’t advise it,” he replies but even as he says the words, he can feel himself relenting under Bethany’s purposeful gaze.
     He leads her over to the police car where Seth is being held by two officers and a pair of cuffs.
     She ignores the looks she is getting as she steps forward. She is intrigued by this new face now that the balaclava is gone.
     But those eyes.
     The eyes are still the same. 
     “I’ll tell them everything,” she says, “I’ll tell them how you stood up for me, how you shot him to save me.” Seth looks at her with fascination, wishing that he had met her in a different time and place.
     “And I’m sorry,” she continues, “Sorry about your brother.” She had caught the bit about his brother and wondered what debt he owed and why his brother needed him so much.
     “No need to be sorry,” Seth tells her with a smile, “Where I am going, I can look out for him myself now.” 

Judges Comments

It's All In The Eyes, the runner-up in WM's Antihero Short Story Competition, is a slice of noir where the darkness is redeemed by the streak of humanity in its antihero, Seth.

The key device in author Maria Dean's story is that she shows Seth partly though the eyes of Bethany. Noir is all about the consequences of bad people making bad choices, and Seth has made plenty of these: he's a gangster; he's done time for violent crime. It's not in question that he's morally dubious - he's leading a bank raid. But the way Maria tells this story – partly from Bethany's POV, partly from Seth's – means the reader can see him sympathetically, as a person who has been put in a position (to protect his brother) where he has to make choices that can't have a good outcome.

Readers will root for Seth because Maria has made is impossible for them - or for Bethany - to view him simply as a villain. He's layered, and so is Bethany, who is given much more agency and makes more ambivalent choices than the traditional fictional 'crime victim'. In a story that's about the grey areas between good and bad, the central characters can't be a hero and a heroine but readers can understand them, empathise with their decisions and sympathise with their situation. In another story, Maria implies, they might have a happy ending. In this one, they can't, but this well-structured short, with a moral dilemma at its heart, makes its reader wonder 'what if', and wish that things might have played out differently.