She recognizes the man as soon as he pushes open the heavy steel and glass door. He had been cute back in high school. On the track team, she thinks. Still tall and skinny. She had a crush on him back then. Now, he’s a cute guy with a gun. His mask is under his chin, as if he’s forgotten to pull it up over his face, while in this, the second year of the pandemic, she is required to wear a mask. And why, she asks herself, would he bother with this small town bank branch not much bigger than the ice cream shop next door? (She was told it had been a saloon until the early Fifties and that the green and white striped awning out front, the big mirror on the back wall and the hanging lamps were all that remained of the original.) At first she thinks it must be a joke. But he isn’t smiling and the gun looks real. She senses a look of despondency in his eyes, like a child used to hunger. This is no joke. If he recognizes her, it doesn’t show.
She presses the secret button with her knee just as she was trained to do. And she follows his instructions to the letter, emptying the till and opening the vault. “No dye packs,” he warns. Well, he’s not a complete idiot, she tells herself.
Then the scary part: He tapes her hands behind her, wraps seven sticks of dynamite held together with wire around her waist and tapes her legs. He tells her there is nothing personal in this, while he stuffs all the money he can get his hands on in a nylon backpack with Eddie Bauer’s name scrawled on the side.
He sees police cars, first one, then two more, pulling up in front of the bank. “Crap,” he says to her, realizing what she must have done. “It’s policy,” she says. “I can’t afford to lose my job.” Normally there are two people working the branch but the pandemic has caused staffing problems. That’s why she finds herself alone this overcast autumn day in the little branch only three blocks from the one story house she shares with her mother.
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s actually good that they’re here.”
The police chief calls, telling him not to do anything foolish. He texts the chief a photo of the teller lying on the floor, writes “Don’t you do anything foolish,” and lists his demands: “I want a gassed up car at the back door. Safe conduct to the state line. If I spot a cop or if they follow me or put a tracking device on the car, I’ll blow her up. Got it?”
Hearing that, she tries to scream, but only a gurgling noise comes out. “Don’t,” she manages to say. She sees he’s getting nervous. He begins walking up and back between the teller’s window and the vault. Back and forth, over and over. She notices even when he stops, he isn’t still. He’s rocking on his heels and fidgeting with his shirt collar. She wonders if he’s high on drugs. She thinks he’ll calm down if she talks to him.
“This job was supposed to be my golden opportunity,” she tells him.
"My dream was to live on my own in a big city, working for an advertising agency or a high end fashion store. But my parents didn’t have the money for college, so I’m stuck, marooned on this small island in southwest Illinois.” Using her bound feet, she pushes herself back far enough so that she can rest almost in a sitting position against the wall below the teller’s window. He looks at her, saying nothing. “I worked for a while at the LincMart, first in the stock room and then as the night cashier.” She remembers how that job doomed the little social life she had, so she kept her eye out for something better. “I got this job so save enough money to enroll in the state university. For the first time, I felt I was on my way. That was five years ago.”
“Shit happens,” he says. “If everything goes well, you’ll be fine. I told you, it’s nothing personal.”
It takes almost an hour, but the car arrives. He confirms that no one is around and carries her to the car, depositing her in the back seat. She is surprised at how easily he lifts her. And then they are off. “Do you remember me?” she asks. “Doris Hankins?” He shakes his head, not bothering to look back at her. “When I was a sophomore you accidentally bumped into me in the hall, knocking three books out of my arms. “Pardon me, little lady,” you said, bending down to pick up the books. “I’m sorry. You okay?”
I was flustered; I could feel my face turning red. “No problem, Monsieur,” I said. I had just left my French class and the word just popped out. You repeated it. Monsieur, you repeated, smiling, and before walking off you bent deeply at your waist. ‘Indeed, madam’ you said."
“Yeah,” he says now. “I remember. Small world. Different world.”
She recalls dreaming about him that night: The high school jock who rode up on a skateboard to save her from a threatening band of gypsies. He swept her up with one hand, kissed her hard on the mouth, and carried her off to his lair. Each night for a month she had tried to recreate that dream, to see the next scene, but there were no reruns, no sequels.
“Look,” he said. “I didn’t plan on doing this, but my options are slim and none. For the last five years I’ve bounced from one dead end job to another. I was fired from a dish washing job at the local deli after a customer complained her soup came in a bowl with baked on tomato sauce. I applied for a job selling shoes, but the manager said no because he didn’t think I was a people person. I was doing okay behind the counter at a fast food restaurant, but was let go when they downsized. ‘First in, first out,’ the manager had said. I thought if I had a nest egg, I could at least start over in a different town.”
There is silence after that until they are well into Missouri. He turns onto an expressway heading north.
“Where are we going? ” she asks.
“Canada,” he says. But within minutes he turns off the expressway and takes a country road to an isolated park. He pulls up next to a dark green Jeep Wrangler. “I’m going to take the tape off your legs. If you try to run, I’ll blow you up. Understand?”
She nods. His touch is surprisingly light and it is clear to her that he is trying to ease the tape off in the least painful way. She finds herself wishing her legs were tanned and not quite so heavy. She has been stocky all of her life, just like her mother. She’s tried various diet plans over the years with little to show for it. She eats lunch these days at her teller window, usually cheese sandwiches. Thoughtful customers drop off donuts and wrapped candy while making deposits or taking withdrawals.
Now he straps her in the back seat of the Wrangler and drives again to the highway. He turns on to 50 West. “I thought we were going to Canada,” she says.
“I am,” he says. “Not you.” It’s approaching evening by the time they go through Sedalia. He continues west until they reach Knobs Noster State Park. He pulls off and stops in a wooded area. The leaves, she notices, are variegated shades of brown and yellow, the blue water placid. He unties her hands and removes the dynamite sticks. “I’ll call the chief and tell him where he can find you. And I’ll leave this phone here. It’s no use to me. You can use it to call them if there’s a problem. Oh, and don’t worry about the dynamite sticks,” he says. “They’re phony.”
She can’t help herself from laughing.
Now, he puts the backpack in the trunk and as he is about to get in the Wrangler and head toward the Canadian border and, he hopes, a new life, she runs to him.