By Alison Bour
Honestly I wasn’t all that scared until the bigger dude told us to hit the floor face down and put our arms out to the side. I felt like I was hanging on a cross that fell forward.
I initially didn’t remember feeling that way. It’s interesting what surfaces now that I’ve moved on.
A few people started to panic. Someone yelled, “My husband’s sick; I have to get home, please!” One woman started to whimper, and a man next to me sounded like he was hyperventilating.
“Shut the hell up, everyone!” The guy’s voice roared like he was announcing a bullfight. Everyone got quiet, but I could sense fear building in the room like the moment just before a pot boils over.
There was a smaller guy, too. Both were dressed in black and wore ski masks with slits for the eyes and mouth. I noticed that before I went down on command. I wanted to sneak another peek but it wasn’t worth it. Not with my wife, Jenna and little Nathan at home.
“You,” the big dude said to someone behind the teller windows. “Fill this! Do it now!” I heard the sound of something hitting the counter. The guy next to me started to say, “Oh, God. Oh, God.” I clenched my mouth like a ventriloquist and told him to stop.
At first I thought the robbery wouldn’t last long—they just wanted in and out with their cash—and we’d be OK. But for some reason the hyperventilator seemed like an omen. I thought maybe he would draw attention to himself and the robbers might snap.
Someone behind me—there were about 14 of us in all—started reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I was afraid if I told her to lower her voice they would hear, so I silently joined in and hoped for the best. I’m not very religious so you might think praying during a crisis is hypocritical.
I never know how people will judge the things I did that day. I’ve learned to forget all that, and let the chips fall where they will. That’s one of the biggest lessons I can pass on.
The first gunshot was just a warning. It hit the ceiling, telling us the big dude was serious and his weapon was real. Did you know half the time people try to rob banks they use fake pistols, or even lie about having one? You can still go to jail, too. It’s the thought that counts.
“Get over there, boy! Do what I told you!”
Boy? I wondered why he called the small one that. Curiosity got the best of me, and I tilted my head to one side and took a quick look out of the corner of my eye.
“Be quiet or someone will get hurt,” the boy shouted, walking to where we were lying on the floor. I heard a hint of shakiness in his voice.
The guy next to me was breathing more normal but hard and slow. In, …out. In, …out. It reminded me of the bags EMT’s use to keep people alive on the way to the hospital. I could hear things banging, but all I could see were some of the tellers holding their hands in the air.
The hyperventilator managed a whisper. “What are we going to do?”
“Nothing,” I whispered back. “Don’t try to be a hero.”
A second shot went off and we’d soon find out this time someone died. I don’t believe the robbers intended on a killing spree that day. Everything just snowballed out of control. I think the crash startled the big guy so much he pulled the trigger on accident.
The shrieks from behind the counter were terrible, like brakes squealing before a car wreck. I’ll never forget that sound. I balled my hands into fists to stop the instinct of covering my ears. The guy next to me started to hyperventilate again. “Calm down,” I told him. The smaller one saw me whisper but didn’t do anything. I took a real deep breath and looked him in the eyes. He was scared to death, and I think he knew I could tell.
Still he shouted, “Dad! You said, … Dad!”
Dad? This was a father/son team? Are you kidding?! I didn’t have time to dwell on that because the big dude started barking orders really fast. He told the tellers—three women and one man—to get out from behind the counter. He told all of us to get up off the floor and walk in a single line toward the far wall of the lobby.
“Sit down! Turn your cell phones off and toss them over there. Backs against the wall, legs straight. Put your hands under your legs.” We all did as we were told. “Anyone who moves will die,” he added, as if we didn’t already know that.
The tellers sat down with the rest of us. Two of them had bloodstains all over their shirts. One had blood on her hands. Tears rolled down her face. She wiped them and gasped when she realized she just smeared blood on her face. She ended up sitting near me, and I felt sorry for her almost more than anyone that day. She was forced to endure the robbery coated with her co-worker’s blood. Like being held at gunpoint wasn’t bad enough.
“Listen! The woman behind the counter messed up and now she’s dead. Anyone want to join her?” We all stared straight ahead.
I willed myself to see Jenna and Natie’s eyes. Jenna gave him that nickname. I didn’t care for it but I went along. You have to pick your battles when you share your life with someone else.
The deafening sound of a bullhorn caught me totally off guard and I bounced my head back against the wall. It was coming from some cops outside, and I felt hope for a second. But, then someone to my left stifled a scream. “Quiet!” yelled the big one.
I looked up and watched the small one’s eyes. They were full of fear. He met my gaze and welled up. He pretended to adjust his mask but I knew he was wiping tears. He was standing about four feet from us holding his gun away from his body. He didn’t even have his finger near the trigger, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
The dad was pacing, facing the other way. I kept my eyes on the son until he looked at me. Then I forced myself to breathe in real slow, making a point of taking the air all the way down to my stomach and holding it in before I exhaled. I was trying to tell him to calm down. He seemed to understand but I wasn’t sure.
The guy using the bullhorn wasn’t barking; he was pretty low key. He said he was from the Strategic Response Unit and he was going to call the bank—that the big dude should pick up the phone.
Even though I knew it was coming, when it rang, my heart skipped a beat. “Watch them,” he said to his son. “No one moves.” He walked to the other side of the lobby to reach the phone. It rang about six times. He hesitated then answered.
That’s when it started to roll just like the movies. He yelled his demands into the phone: money and a way out of town. He started pacing again, darting glances out the windows. If he didn’t get what he wanted, one person would die every half hour. He aimed the gun toward the ceiling each time he made a point.
The son glanced my way out of the corner of his eye. I mean this kid was shaking in his shoes. What the hell kind of dad makes his son rob a bank? A lousy one that’s for sure. The kid’s hands were sweating and he took turns rubbing them on his shirt, holding his gun with the other.
“It’s OK,” I mouthed to him. He wiped tears again with his mask. He gave me a partial nod. I felt another brief flash of hope. Maybe he wasn’t on board with his old man, and that could work to our advantage.
I lost sight of the hyperventilator. Another man to my right kept his head facing forward but started to whisper as the robber argued with the caller.
“Let’s do something,” the guy said using my ventriloquist trick. “Knock him on the head with something when his back’s turned.”
This asshole was serious, too. I wanted to say, ‘How insane can you possibly be?’ But I held my tongue. “This isn’t 9/11. We’re not storming the cockpit. You got that?” The son knew we were talking but ignored it.
“It’s just that I got kids,” the guy said. A flash of Natie seared through my mind, then down my spine. I had to place the small of my back up against the wall to steady myself.
I caught a whiff of ammonia and realized it was urine. A woman to my left started shivering as liquid rolled along the carpet. I had to lean a bit to get her attention. “Don’t worry,” I mouthed.
“You! Get over here!” The big dude pointed at a heavy-set man dressed in a suit and tie. When he stood up, I noticed he was gripping a briefcase like he was on a roller coaster out of control.
“Drop it!” It hit the floor with a thud. Another omen.
The man stumbled toward the robber, who grabbed him by his tie with his free hand and yanked. He let it go and yelled into the phone. “It’s been a half hour!” He ordered the man to stand against the teller windows, and fired several shots. One hit directly in the middle of the guy’s forehead.
These shots sounded louder than the first two, maybe because there was nothing blocking the sound, or maybe because it was right there in our faces. It wasn’t like blood spurted out his head; it was like it gushed straight out from a garden hose flipping around in the air. Everyone started gasping breaths in different rhythms. “Jesus H.,” someone said.
I thought my stomach was going to fly into my throat, get lodged and choke me. People started praying. It was like the shock kept us all from wailing, which is good because by now it was obvious the robber was getting more desperate by the minute. I felt my stomach lurch again and fought the urge to put my hand on it.
The last time I felt like that I found Jenna in a daze about her mammogram results. “It’ll be fine,” she said, but all I heard was the word, cancer.
That’s what it was, too. The doctors said she might not get pregnant after all the chemo, but Natie came bouncing out without a hitch. A week before the robbery, we celebrated her five-year remission anniversary. I never told her about the times I pulled off the road and threw up.
Things weren’t going well between the cops and the big dude. He yanked the phone so hard he pulled the cord from the wall. Then he kicked the phone across the floor. He pointed the gun at us. “Those fucking cops out there are killing you all, do you hear? This is their fault.”
The son stepped forward and said, “Dad?” His voice sounded weak. He just wasn’t strong enough to stand up to his old man.
Dad fired a shot toward him, hitting the wall on purpose. “Please stop, dad,” he whispered. He looked at me and I took a deep breath again. ‘Stay calm, stay calm.’ I wondered if his dad ever taught him how to hit a moving target.
Another one of the phones rang and the same shouting continued, then dad carried out another threat. This time he picked the woman who wet herself. He took her life execution-style with her kneeling and her back to us. One shot straight through her shoulder blades and she was gone. I saw a clock on the wall. A total of an hour and a half had gone by. I knew Jenna would be wondering where I was.
How fast things can go so wrong.
That’s when I noticed the pregnant woman. She looked like she was about six months along. She was sitting next to the last victim so I didn’t see her at first. The robber was back on another phone, stomping back and forth. I took a chance and inched toward her, scooting on my butt. I kept my back against the wall and my hands under my thighs. The son saw me but didn’t say anything. I closed my eyes for a second and offered him thanks with a half-smile.
The pregnant woman stared into the distance with no emotion. I slid my hand from underneath my leg so we touched fingers. She closed her eyes for a second and rocked forward.
It’s amazing how much a touch can do. Jenna would hold herself stiff as a board when the poison went into her veins, but if I just put my hands on her shoulders, she would relax.
“Boy or girl,” I whispered, keeping my eyes on the robber.
“Girl.” Her finger wrapped a bit around mine.
I lowered my voice as much as possible. “I have a boy. Once she’s born, your heart won’t ever be the same.”
She closed her eyes and turned up the corners of her mouth. I felt another glimmer of hope until the dad slammed the phone on the desk. I wondered why the cops couldn’t figure out how to talk him down. He couldn’t be the first crazy person they ever dealt with.
The robber strode over to us and eyed the woman. We both went stoic. I grabbed my chest before I could stop myself. No!
He yanked her up by the hair. She looked like a statue. He dragged her across the lobby and let go of her hair to pick up the phone. He was yelling so hard I saw spit come out his mouth.
“I have a two-for-one special here! She goes and the baby goes with her.” This was no longer just a robbery. We were hostages of a man who would stop at nothing.
The son started shifting foot to foot. His eyes narrowed on his dad. I began to think he was our only chance. Had he seen enough to take a stand?
I wondered if I could run away from the group to divert attention, get the robber distracted. That would give the kid a chance to fire at him. If I zigzagged maybe dad wouldn’t have a good shot at me. The best-case scenario was it would work and we’d all go home. The worst was lots of innocent people could die. But that was happening anyway.
Jenna, little Natie. Little Natie, Jenna. I could lose them. Don’t be a hero. That ran through my mind a few times.
I looked up at the pregnant woman. She had a hand to her belly. Her face was white, and I thought she might miscarry right then and there. Dad listened intently to whatever the cops said but he was scowling. He moved back toward us, pulling the phone with him. The pregnant woman followed, stumbling once on the toe of her shoe before she caught her balance.
I stared down the son. I tried to tell him the plan without words. I lifted my hand out from under my thigh just enough to point to myself, trying to indicate: ‘Me, me. I’m going to try and take control.’ I walked my fingers across the floor like that old Yellow Pages ad. Then I nodded my head and pointed my eyes upward in the direction I planned to run.
Finally I looked directly at his gun, then to his dad. I never prayed so hard as I did at that moment, begging God to let him read my thoughts. If it worked I knew it would classify as a full-fledged miracle. After all, crazier things have happened. A woman lifts a car to save her child trapped underneath. A skydiver’s chute doesn’t open and he lives. You just never know.
By now everyone else had given up. They looked like zombies in a Halloween flick. The rancid smell of sweat was the only sign they were still alive. I was soaked myself.
I looked at the son, trying to decide if he could pull it off. He gave me what I wanted: a slight shake of the head.
For the first time, he placed both hands on the gun and put his finger on the trigger. I took that as a good sign. The dad was now standing sideways to us. It was now or never. Please forgive me Jenna and little Natie …
I looked one more time at the son, giving him a stern glance: ‘Don’t let us down.’
I rose to my feet and started running in between the deposit-ticket counter and the teller windows, and toward the front door. I kept changing directions so hopefully dad couldn’t land a fatal shot.
I felt a raging sting like a swarm of bees attacked me. As I went down, I looked back just in time to see our hostage-taker fall. His head hit the floor with a clunk. It sounded like sweet music. He was bleeding real bad from the chest. Honestly, I felt pride like the son was my own boy. I wasn’t exactly sure where I got hit. The pain subsided some, but I felt myself starting to fade.
The son tore off his mask, walked over to his dad who was twisting and moaning on the floor. He whacked him on the head with his gun. And I mean, hard. He lost it and started kicking the shit out of him.
The screams really pierced my ears then. I mustered every ounce of energy I had and shouted, “Stop!” That broke the son’s trance.
“Come here,” I said, my voice beginning to die out. He walked over to me and I motioned for him to get closer to the ground.
“What’s your name?”
“Joey, take your gun, open the front door just enough to throw it out. Wait until someone gets it then walk out with your hands high in the air. These people are your witnesses. You won’t go down for what your dad did.”
His face looked younger than I originally thought. “How old are you?” I had to force my words this time, my voice was so hoarse. My head was spinning and I kept seeing double so I closed my eyes.
God damn it to hell. Fifteen! “Do what I told you. Do it now.”
That’s when I started vomiting blood. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get shot, rest assured it’s not as terrifying as you would think. But that part was awful, just disgusting. I tried to spit it out but more kept coming. People were at my side calling for help on cell phones.
But it was too late. I wanted to pull out my favorite picture of Jenna and Natie but I didn’t have the strength to reach my wallet. I had to settle for a memory. I closed my eyes and got it as clear as I could. It was the photo I took of the first time Jenna breastfed Natie. We took at least 100 pictures of his birth, but it will always be my favorite.
Having that be my last thought was bittersweet but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I held on to their faces as long as I could. I think I even reached my arms out to try and grab them as I slipped away. Please forgive me my beautiful girl, my precious little man. I’ll never stop loving you both.
I know most parents have big dreams for their kids. They want them to become doctors or invent something that will make them rich and famous. I was that way, too. But the robbery changed how I feel about a lot of things. Now when I think of little Natie’s future, nothing specific comes to mind. I want him to find a good job and a woman like his mom. There’s really only one thing that matters to me now: that someday he understands his daddy did the right thing.