by Alice Woodrome
I was filling out a deposit slip just before the bank closed on a cold December day. I go there after work every Friday. Nothing was unusual except my preoccupation with an email I had received from my best friend in Portland that afternoon. She was worried about her teen-age son, who had just lost his job and his girlfriend after an arrest for drug possession. He was depressed to the point of despair.
I signed my name on the back of my paycheck and was about to walk over to a teller's window when it happened. It wasn't like the movies - no suspenseful music to build up to the shot. There were no cameras following the robber to warn me of what was to come; just a loud pop and the sight of a uniformed guard lying face down on the floor with a drawn gun in his outstretched hand. I didn't even see any blood, but then it was probably seeping from the man's body into the blue carpet beneath him. I heard a woman scream immediately and several gasps -- then silence. Every eye in the bank lobby was turned toward the shooter, wearing a beige ski mask and waving a handgun. I would have expected to be afraid like the victims in the movies, but at that moment I wasn't. The realization that I was in a life and death situation, though, did have an impact. I was not only a participant in this surreal scene, but I also watched as a detached observer. Every nuance was in crisp detail as it played out-as in slow motion.
"Don't nobody else try to be a hero," he shouted. His voice was young and his hand was shaking. "I done killed one man."
I suspected the gravity of that statement was as apparent to him as it was to the rest of us. He herded us -- customers and bank employees alike -- into one corner of the lobby and instructed us to sit side-by-side along the wall. I was determined to not do anything stupid; we all did as we were told.
The young man had a brown paper bag under his left arm -- full of money I presumed. Apparently he had succeeded in collecting it from a teller before the guard was alerted. A silent alarm must have been tripped, as well, because I saw three police cruisers through the front window as they pulled into the bank parking lot. The gunman saw them too.
"Oh man, oh man," the robber said, then he slid down to the carpet with the gun trained on us. I'm sure he had meant to make his escape before anyone was killed -- and before the police were dispatched. Even though we couldn't see his face, his distress and indecision could not be masked.
A child close to me in her mother's arms began to cry. The robber pointed the gun toward the sound and yelled in a shaky voice. "Shut up-- I can't think. Shut up or I'll kill you. I'll kill all of you."
The next couple of hours were an eternity, and fear eventually caught up with me as I sat silently beside the rest of the hostages, each of us isolated in our own thoughts. The police stayed outside, trying to negotiate our release by bullhorn. Several minutes often elapsed before they had anything new to say. None of it had any effect on the robber, though. He did not give an inch as night began to fall.
Against my will, a part of me began to look at the gunman as a person. While the sky darkened outside the bank, I thought about my best friend and her son and how a mistake can be compounded by poor decisions until a life cannot be reclaimed. I tried to imagine the young man's thoughts as he contemplated the implications of the murder he had already committed. After an hour of no progress, I knew in my gut the standoff would end badly - with more bloodshed.
Then without warning, all of the lights in the building went off at the same time. We were in almost total darkness. Only the lights of the police vehicles outside the bank window were visible.
"Don't move or I'll shoot," we heard the young robber say.
I never knew if the sudden power failure was a reckless police tactic or some incredible coincidence, but it was obvious to us hostages that it didn't help the situation. Perhaps if someone had run immediately after it went black, they could have gotten away, but no one did. It took too long to realize that, and by then the murderer was threatening to shoot into the group of hostages, "if I hear one sound." He might not hit the right one, but none of us moved a muscle as we stared into the frightening blackness.
I sat motionless against the wall and prayed that everyone else would remain quiet, too. Then the dreaded inevitable happened: the child began to sob.
"Shut her up," he screamed. "I swear I'll shoot."
The muffled sobbing continued. And he did shoot - a piercing pop and a flash of light in the darkness was all we saw.
The child screamed, along with two other voices followed by another terrifying hush. I was unhurt and the people on both sides of me were okay, too -- confirmed by a squeeze of hands. I prayed he had missed us all, but there was no way to know in the silent darkness.
For a minute or two we sat in total silence until the lights abruptly came on again. When my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, I saw the bank robber slumped over, blood soaking his ski mask and trickling into the carpet.