Story: “Rising to the Occasion”
By Austin Manchester
While some journalists were overseas covering terrorists and revolutions, Clark Donovan was writing a story that people would only read while taking a shit or drinking their coffee. His editor demanded a story by that night about the effect of rising oil prices on the local community so it could run in the next day’s paper. Clark was tasked with interviewing local gas station customers and clerks.
His career wasn’t supposed to turn out the way that it did. Donovan dreamed of being an investigative journalist, the kind that brought down corrupt politicians and exposed police departments for their unethical practices. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The job market for journalists was terrible at the time he finished his undergraduate degree and even worse when he finished grad school. Clark was lucky enough to get a job at a small community newspaper shortly after he finished school. His Pulitzer-sized dreams had to be put on hold.
After touring the gas stations in the five-mile radius surrounding the office, Clark pulled into a Shell and decided it would be his last stop for the day. He had plenty of time to get back to the office and throw together a story to make page eight. He entered the gas station ahead of a woman carrying her toddler. Clark held the door open for her. She flashed a cute smile at him. Clark hadn’t had a girlfriend since he was in school. Sure, he had been on a couple of dates here and there since, but, in the end, he was still left without the family he desired.
The young reporter thought of talking to the woman, maybe asking her to dinner. He hadn’t noticed a wedding ring. Maybe their dinner could blossom into a relationship. Clark could become her daughter’s stepdad. They could have some kids of their own and grow old together. One day, perhaps, they would laugh when remembering how they met at a gas station before Clark made it big time.
The daydream ended when a burly bearded man brushed up against Clark as he stepped through the door. Clark stopped daydreaming and walked over to the man working behind the counter. “Hi, I’m Clark Donovan. I’m a reporter for the Perry County Newsletter doing a story on the rising gas prices. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
The cashier sighed and looked away from Clark, trying to come up with a reason to say no. The convenience store wasn’t very busy. Clark, the bearded man, and the mother and her toddler were the only customers. The bearded guy walked up to the counter and Clark stepped aside so the man could pay. The cashier glared Clark’s way and said, “Can’t right now. Busy.”
Clark waited impatiently as the man purchased a pack of beer and some cigarettes. His gaze wandered around the store and again fixated on the woman. She was roaming the aisles asking her daughter what she wanted for a snack.
Once the cashier finished with the bearded guy he turned to Clark. “How long will this take? I got customers.”
“Not long. I just want to ask a couple questions about your business. How much have your gas prices gone up in the past week. Month? Three months?” Clark had his notepad out ready to jot down anything he might need for his story. As expected, the cashier didn’t offer up much information.
The door slammed open and a large man held a gun, pointed immediately at the cashier. He was wearing jeans and a black hoodie. A sad clown mask covered his face. The red paint formed the shape of a frown and, coupled with the angled purple eyebrows, showed that the clown was crying. A single blue tear was painted, frozen askew, just above the bright red nose. The eye holes were outlined in purple.
This mask forced Clark to remember a time shortly after he finished school. A classmate of his, whom he wasn’t too fond of, had landed a job at the New York Times. He was covering the trial of the most notorious serial killer that had preyed on New York City in fifteen years. During the trial, he spoke to the murderer during each recess and eventually got an exclusive interview with him. The murderer had worn a clown mask during each horrible act. Because of that interview, Clark’s former classmate’s career was launched to success.
As the masked thief stepped toward the counter he yelled for the cashier to open the register and empty all of its contents into a bag. “If you hit the alarm I’ll fucking kill you!” His voice was muffled through the rubber mask. He pistol-whipped Clark and the aspiring journalist fell to the floor. The woman in the back shrieked and her daughter began to cry.
Clark was bleeding from his nose, petrified and shaking. He looked around the store, then at the like-new Jordans the thief was wearing, at the candy that spilled onto the floor, and to the woman and her child.
At that moment Clark thought of possible headlines for the following day’s papers: “Indiana Journalist Stops Robbery Attempt at Gas Station Convenience Store.” “Local Journalist Saves Mother and Her Daughter During Attempted Robbery.” “Convenience Store Owner Offers Free Gas for Life to Hero Journalist.”
Those headlines could propel Clark’s career. What newspaper wouldn’t want the heroic Clark Donovan writing for them? He could finally do the kind of reporting he had always desired.
Clark acted on instinct, on the instinct that told him to save the woman, protect her and her child. On the instinct that told him to play the hero.
He said, “Fun’s over.”
“The fuck you saying?”
Clark stood up. “I’m an off duty police officer. Backup’s on the way. Just put the gun down, all right. Nobody’s gotta get hurt.”
He extended his arms out, palms upright, the way people do in the movies when they’re trying to calm down a crazy person with a gun.
The masked man started to panic. His eyes nervously darted around the store, from Clark to the outside of the store. “What the fuck you talking about, man?”
He pointed the gun the Clark, his hand twitching.
“Backup’s gonna be here any second. Just try and calm down, okay?”
Clark, without thinking, took a step forward toward the man.
The thief fired two shots through Clark’s chest and into the cooler at the back of the store. He didn’t stick around to see if the reporter would be okay. He didn’t wait for the money. He took off his mask and ran.
As he lay dying, Clark thought of the first story he had written for the Perry County Newsletter. It was about how some housing development was going to build more homes. Clark couldn’t recall the details. He thought only of the elation he felt when he saw his name in print underneath the headline; his excitement when he called his mother to tell her about his first story; the smile he had when he told himself that he made it.