by Alice Woodrome
It wasn’t like the movies—no ominous music. No cameras followed the action to warn me of what was coming.
I had stopped by the bank after work on an unseasonably warm December afternoon, my routine every Friday. I’d been preoccupied since finding a joint in my son’s jacket yesterday. Michael swore to his father and me it wasn’t his. He’d left his jacket at his friends house, he told us, and didn’t know how it got in the pocket. Whether or not it was the truth, his choice of friends became a bigger concern.
It happened just as I signed my name on the back of my paycheck, and was about to walk over to a bank teller's window. A thunderous crack echoed through the small lobby, reverberating through my body and leaving my ears ringing. I gasped and turned. Several people screamed. A uniformed guard staggered with a gun dangling from his hand. He fell with a thud, face down on the floor.
The fact that I was in a life-or-death situation was not lost on me, but at that moment I was unafraid. I was a participant in this surreal scene, and I also watched as a detached observer. Every nuance was in crisp detail and slow motion. I stared at the guard on the floor. No blood was visible, but it was probably seeping into the gray carpet beneath his motionless body.
I lifted my eyes to the shooter, just a few feet away. He was slender, wore a beige ski mask and waved a silver handgun. A young woman wearing a yellow pullover drew her hand to her mouth. A man with a checkered flannel shirt and ball cap stood frozen as he held a styrofoam cup. Wide eyes and open mouths. Sobs and panicked outcries—all had a vivid, dream-like quality.
"Don't nobody else try to be a hero.” The gunman’s voice was young and his hand shook. "I already killed one man."
He turned toward the entrance, pointing the gun at a man who appeared to be inching closer to the door. “You got a death wish, mister?”
“No, no,” the man said, holding up his palms as he moved away from the exit. “You’re the boss.”
I wasn’t sure with the ski mask, but the gunman couldn’t have been much over eighteen; too young to be doing something so desperate.
“Here,” one of the tellers said in a tremulous voice. She handed him a paper bag he must have given her.
He grabbed the bag and tucked it under one arm as he turned around and glanced out the glass front doors. “Come on man. Where are you?” he said just loud enough that I could hear.
Near the safety deposit room, a dark-haired lady held her chest as she fought for every breath, her mouth agape.
The gunman pointed his weapon at her and shouted, “Shut up!” He swept the gun around at the scattered customers, some cowering on the floor, others rooted where they stood. “All of you. Make one more sound and I’ll blow your damned heads off.” He glanced outside the glass doors again at the entrance. “Come on.” His voice cracked.
A young woman put her hand on the wheezing lady’s shoulder and whispered something. She patted the lady’s back and looked up at the shooter, her face ashen. “Please, let her leave,” she said in a strained voice. “She needs to see a doctor.”
“No, dammit!” he yelled. “Nobody leaves but me. Make her shut up.”
The asthmatic lady clung to the young woman’s arm as she wheezed, a terrified look in her eyes. “I… ca-ca-can’t.”
“She may have an inhaler in her purse,” the young woman said. “I’m going to look—is that okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” The young robber clasped the top of his ski mask with one hand and trained his gun on them. “Just shut her up.”
The woman found the inhaler and gave it to the wheezing lady.
The robber glanced through the glass doors again, but whoever he was looking for evidently wasn’t coming. “That f’ing bastard,” he said before looking back at us, swinging the gun around. “Over there against the wall,” he shouted. “Move it.” He motioned to the farthest corner of the lobby. “Everybody. Get over there.”
A dozen or so bank customers along with tellers and two other bank employees shuffled to the corner. I did as I was told and sat on the floor against the wall, still oddly disconnected, yet aware of everything. An elderly woman crouched next to me, her eyes moist and her lips trembling. She clutched a big blue purse and whispered the twenty-third Psalm under her breath. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
On my left, a young mother I recognized as a cashier from the grocery store held a squirming toddler tightly in her arms. Next to her, a man in a suit I’d seen in one of the glassed-in bank offices sat beside two tellers. One appeared calm and held the hand of the other, who was chewing her lower lip as her eyes darted around the room. The woman in yellow was next, twisting a lock of hair. Several places down, the lady with breathing problems labored for air using her inhaler. The woman who’d helped her remained at her side. On the end, the man in the ball cap, glaring at the guy in the ski mask.
“You, too. Sit down,” the shooter yelled, pointing the gun at an elderly gentleman having trouble lowering himself to the floor.
I wanted to help the frail old man, but he was too far away, and I didn’t want to provoke the killer. I held my breath as the woman beside him finally assisted him to the floor.
My family would be expecting me home soon. John was a worrier. I looked out the window at the winter sky, darkening already. If I didn’t get home by five-thirty, he would likely call. What would the shooter do if my phone rang? I considered digging in my pocket and turning off the ringer, but the robber might think I was making a call.
Through the drive-thru window, I saw three police cruisers pull into the bank parking lot. A bank employee must have tripped a silent alarm.
The gunman saw the cruisers too.
"Oh man, oh man…” the young robber said in a shaky voice. He buckled to the carpet on his knees with the gun still pointed at us. With his other hand, he pulled at the collar of his T-shirt, his chest rising and falling with every breath.
The little girl next to me in her mother's arms started to cry. The robber gripped his gun with both hands and aimed it at her and said in a strangled tone, "Shut up—I can't think.” His voice broke as it rose in pitch. “Shut the hell up or I'll kill you! I'll kill all of you.”
“Shh,” the young woman said, burying her child’s face in her coat to muffle the sobs. “It’s okay, baby,” she whispered.
I thought of my own child again, now fifteen, struggling with his grades for the first time in his life. Michael spent too much time playing video games, and I worried he wouldn’t get into college if he didn’t start taking his studies seriously. We had talked, but nothing I said seemed to change his behavior or attitude. And now, after yesterday, I wondered if he was using games and perhaps marijuana to escape from a deeper problem.
I looked at the gunman still on his knees, ten feet or so from the row of hostages. He wiped a palm on his jeans. That slight build and youthful voice. What could have happened in his short life to send him down this wretched path?
A cell phone rang somewhere at the other end of the line of hostages. I tensed.
The young man swung the gun in the direction of the ring tone. “Throw that to me.”
As a woman dug the phone out of her purse and slid it to the robber across the floor, I slipped a hand in my pocket and switched off the sound on mine. The elderly woman beside me snuck a hand in her purse too, and I suspected others did, as well. The robber picked up the woman’s phone and pitched it over the teller’s counter without a word.
The hush in the lobby was broken when a voice outside blared through a bullhorn. “This is Sergeant David Poole of the Metropolitan Police Department Crisis Unit.”
The gunman jerked toward the sound and pointed the gun at the window.
“I’m here to listen to you,” the bullhorn blared. “And to make sure everybody stays safe. We’re going to call the bank’s number. Can you pick up the phone when it rings?”
The woman with the child gave me a worried look as a phone rang on the desk in a nearby glassed-in office. “They don’t know about the guard, I guess,” she whispered.
I glanced at the guard still in the same position on the floor. If he wasn’t dead already, he surely would be soon.
“Why should I talk to you?” the young man shouted at the window, but I don’t think they could have heard him. “You’re not going to do me any favors.” He looked through the open door of the office as the land line rang again.
“Pick the phone up please.” The voice on the bullhorn said. “We can’t work anything out if we can’t hear you.”
Another two rings. The robber kept the gun pointed at us as he backed toward the office, through the doorway, and picked up the cordless phone on the sixth ring. He held it to his ear and spoke as he walked out of the office. “No, you don’t need to know my name.” He sat again before us, out of sight of the windows. “All you need to know is I killed one man today,” he said into the phone. “I got nothing to lose by shooting another one.”
I heard only his responses, much of it too mumbled to understand, but what I heard wasn’t encouraging. “‘Cause that’s the only way they’re getting out alive, that’s why.” Another time: “I’ll shoot ‘em if he does,” and later, “I know better than that. The police don’t compromise.”
The next half hour was an eternity. My phone vibrated in my pocket every few minutes, and as the time stretched on, fear finally caught up with me while I sat silently beside the rest of the hostages. My limbs began to shake as I tried to control my anxiety, my heart racing. This was stretching on too long.
Only occasionally our isolation was broken by a whisper, a meeting of eyes, or touch of a hand. As I looked down the row of hostages I saw several with closed eyes moving their lips. I prayed myself much of the time—that it would end soon without anyone else being hurt. The asthmatic woman seemed to be doing better, or perhaps she’d just found a way to suffer more quietly. The man in the ball cap clenched his jaws while a woman beside him silently wept. Incredibly, the child in her mother’s arms beside me sucked on a pacifier with closed eyes.
The police stayed outside in the fading light, trying to negotiate our release by phone. I don’t know what the authorities promised, but nothing seemed to satisfy the gunman: the more the minutes ticked away the more agitated he grew. He shifted positions, sweat soaking the armpits of his white T-shirt. Several times he hung up the phone and wouldn’t answer it again for a few minutes while it rang incessantly. The air was saturated with fear; in the gunman’s movements, on the faces of the hostages, in the odor of anxiety around me.
The young robber rubbed the back of his neck. He looked over his shoulder every few moments while the sky darkened to black outside. I tried to imagine this boy’s thoughts as he contemplated the implications of the murder he had already committed. I somehow knew in my gut the standoff would end badly.
My thoughts turned once more to my son, and how a mistake can be compounded by poor decisions until a life cannot be reclaimed. I couldn’t let that happen to Michael. Perhaps it was time to do more than just talk to him. If I made it out of this alive, I’d set some limits, draw some boundaries, maybe even get him a counselor. He needed to get back on track next semester.
Without warning, all the lights in the bank shut down. Hostages gasped. We were in almost total darkness. Only the flashing strobes of the police vehicles outside the bank window were visible, sweeping reds and blues across the walls above us.
The child beside me started to whimper. “It’s okay, baby,” her mother whispered.
"Don't nobody move. I swear I'll shoot," the young robber shouted.
I didn’t know if the sudden power failure was a reckless police tactic or some incredible coincidence, but my fear skyrocketed. The room seemed filled with the expectation of disaster. 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 we might have escaped.
The bank robber called out in the darkness, “I swear I’ll shoot if I hear anybody move…”
I didn’t move a muscle, as heat rose to my face, and sweat trickled down my neck. I felt the young woman beside me rocking her toddler from side to side, whispering words of comfort.
“Shit!” The gunman’s voice was barely audible. “What am I going to…? He’ll be so mad.” Then mumbling I couldn’t make out.
My heart raced as I wondered if I’d ever see my family again. I ached to feel John’s comforting arms around me, to hear him call me sweetheart. Who would take care of them if I was killed? How would Michael react? Being a teenager was hard enough without losing a parent.
I sat motionless against the wall, holding my breath and staring into the frightening blackness. I prayed everyone else would remain quiet, too.
The old lady beside me whispered the psalm again, scarcely perceptible. “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me…”
Then the child on my left began to cry. “Mama, I wanna go home. I need to pee pee. I wanna go home…”
"Shut that kid up," the gunman screamed. "I swear I'll shoot."
I turned to the woman with the toddler, trembling so much I wouldn’t have been able to help if I had known how. I touched her hand in the darkness. The child’s muffled sobbing continued.
The gunman shot—a piercing crack. For a split second, a flash of light illuminated the terrified faces of the hostages. Then all fell dark again as the echo of the shot faded.
Stifled screams rippled through the line of hostages, followed by another terrifying silence. 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 who could know in the hushed darkness. All we could see were the red and blue police strobes sweeping slowly across the walls above us.
For a minute or two we sat—saying nothing, hearing nothing—until the lights abruptly came on again. Then cries and gasps as my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness.
The young robber lay slumped over on his side, blood soaking his ski mask and trickling onto the carpet.
Overtaken by great sadness, I thought of his mother. I wanted to cradle his head as his life slipped away and cry for him and his family. Instead, I took out my phone and called home, barely able to speak when Michael answered.