July 31, 2011
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I have a baby in the backseat and a maniac riding shotgun. I am drifting all over the road because all my fear-blurred eyes want to do is glance at the gun in his hand, and the needle on my speedometer is nearing twice the legal speed limit in my stagnant little town. I register my own heavy breathing and weigh it against the steady, slow exhales of my passenger. The weapon is steady in his hand. How are you so calm? I think to say, but I press my lips firmly together and harden my grip on the steering wheel. I wish that I do not know exactly where I am going, that I will not have to grit my teeth and smile at familiar faces. I wish I could keep driving until I see a way out. But as I make my final turn, I feel the weight of the end drawing closer.

Two Days Earlier

I hate my job. I stare at the same gleaming surfaces every day; polished marble floors and countertops under the translucent bowl-shaped lights descending from the high ceiling. Soft tones of green wash throughout the room. They make me sick. I smile half-heartedly at customers and silently make judgments about each of them based on their appearances. I feel like my own clothes don’t fit. I wear a nametag, for Christ’s sake. I want to move, walk, run. But I stand behind a counter and simmer behind my façade of expert blandness. I am a teller for Omega Bank of Herling, Iowa.

Today, I wake up to my sister pounding on my door and asking me, apparently for the third time, to feed Lilly. My long brown hair is knotted impressively in several places, and I fell asleep without taking my makeup off again so my eyelashes are stuck together. I glance at myself in the mirror. My eyes are bloodshot with exhaustion, their redness popping against the green of my irises. My skin is pale, and my nail polish has been reduced to jagged patches in the middle of each nail. My eyebrows need some upkeep and I haven’t shaved my legs in days. I hear Lilly crying in the next room and I rush over to her.

“Shhh, Lilly, don’t cry,” I croon. “Where’s mama?” She hiccups and stares up at me, rubbing her chubby little cheeks with her fist. I pick her up, and as always I am surprised by her weight. “Baby Lilly is almost one year old,” I say to her in a singsong voice.

“Hannah! Did you feed her yet?” Ashley yells from her bedroom. My sister is anything but patient.

“Working on it,” I call. I sigh, hating the readiness of my answer and my automatic, worker-bee nature.

After she’s fed, I look around our apartment. There are dirty dishes piled high in the sink, half-eaten containers of food scattered on various countertops, and dirty clothes spilling out of the laundry room. The rugs are dirty. Bills sit unpaid on the kitchen table. The plants are edged with brown and they droop dejectedly toward the ground. Our home looks nearly as neglected as I do. I feel a wave of frustration: I spent the entire weekend cleaning and Ashley has already erased all signs of my hard work. I rub my temples briefly, and look down at my watch. S***. As usual, I will be late for work.

I arrive a mere five minutes after my shift was supposed to start, but I still take a barrage of insults from my boss, who is fat and hairy everywhere except the top of his head. My coworkers sneer pointedly at my wrinkled shirt and messy hair. I glare and curse at them under my breath. I get a string of irritating and impatient customers who worsen my dark mood until I’m practically fuming. I find myself hating everything I look at, everything I touch. I despise the bouffant on the pretentious woman, the Rolex on her husband. The man with sloppy, low-slung jeans repels me. I loathe the keys that stick on my keyboard and my dirty computer screen. I detest the tasteless sandwich I eat for lunch. By the time afternoon rolls around, I can almost hear the steam coming out of my ears.
Everything about the past year of my life, hell, the past ten years, has been about other people. The one thing I did worthwhile was getting a decent college education at Iowa State, majoring in Journalism. I have always dreams of traveling to exotic places and writing thrilling articles for people that can’t travel, so they can experience the culture I find. When I was a little girl I would pull out my parents’ massive Atlas and find places with cool names, then add them to the list of places I would go. But once I was out of college I was swimming in debt and I took the first job that was offered to me.
Now I’m still in the same damn place, because I feel responsible for so many people in my life, just like I always have. I took care of my mother when she was sick, planned the funeral when she died. I held my sister when she cried for weeks afterward, and did not allow myself to shed a tear unless I was alone. I cared for Ashley again when some meathead got her pregnant and ran off. I might as well be Lilly’s mom, because I do everything that a young child’s mother should be doing, while Ashley nurses her nicotine addiction and goes out drinking every night. I’m thirty years old and I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever done just for myself. I’ve never been near a spa, never taken any kind of vacation. When I go shopping, it’s usually for Ashley or the baby. I have nowhere to go, because all of our living relatives are either too old to help us or too distant to care. I wish more than anything that I could drop all of my responsibilities and just go, go anywhere and everywhere. But I have an alcoholic sister and an infant that cling to me like I am their life support, and I have no room to breathe.
I feel strange, thinking about this. Suddenly everything feels like it is too hot to touch, I am sweating, and people are starting to give me looks. The soft glow of the lights has become glaring, I am a prisoner being interrogated. I am itchy, and my eyes burn. Someone bumps into me and my skin crawls. I feel thousands of words I have always wanted to say burning their way up my esophagus. My mental anguish has made me physically sick. I run for the bathroom, pushing several people out of the way and ignoring their indignant outcries. I fall to my knees before a toilet without bothering to close the stall door and breathe heavily into it. When nothing happens, I rest my forehead on my arm and close my eyes, waiting for the feeling to pass.
I turn around and slump to the floor, not caring that it is disgusting to sit on the floor of a bathroom. I feel dizzy and weak, and I don’t know what is happening to me. I consider that I might be going crazy, but I think that would have happened long ago if I were. I go through the course of my day, looking for something unusual, something catastrophic or life changing. But there is nothing. I am what has changed. I feel like I can see every single time that I’ve been made to feel worthless, by my family, my coworkers, my boss. All of it has piled up, weighing on my chest and crushing, probably permanently, my will to cater to others above myself at all times. My heart is pounding as I stand up and walk to the mirror. I stare at myself and silently vow that this will be the last day of my life that I let anyone walk over me. That from this moment forward, I will stand up for myself. But my eyes are wide and frightened, and I can’t convince my weak heart to cooperate. Even I don’t believe my own promises. But I march out of the bathroom with a small amount of determination.
The rest of the day passes with relative normalcy. I go home to Ashley and Lilly, spend most of the evening cleaning the apartment and listening to my sister b**** about my various inadequacies, and when I finally go to bed I sink almost immediately into a deep sleep. I dream that I am talking to my mother. We are sitting in my apartment eating lasagna, which was my favorite meal when I was little. I am wistful, and she is ethereal, vague.
“I don’t know what to do, Mom. I want to quit more than I’ve ever wanted anything, but I have to take care of Ashley and Lilly.” I say, searching her face for the answer that I so desperately need. She says nothing, but looks down and the diamond ring flashing on her finger. Slowly and deliberately, she removes it and presses it into my palm.
“I can’t take this… It’s yours. I’ve kept it hidden away for you ever since you died,” I say proudly. “And besides, Dad would not be happy if anything happened to it.”
She smiles at me. “I want you to sell it. Your father hasn’t spoken to you in years.”
It’s true. After my mother’s death he withdrew into himself and refused my visitations until I gave up and left him alone. I think it was because I look so much like her. He would never know if I decided to sell the ring, and she had left it to me… But even so, I had never considered it mine. It would always be hers. I tell her this, but she just shakes her head and closes my fingers around the ring. She points at the kitchen table, where a list of strange names of cities and countries sits. She squeezes my hand and stands, kissing my forehead. I watch as she melts away, still with the same reassuring smile.
Seconds later, my eyes snap open as my alarm clock sounds. I frown in confusion; it is Saturday. I must have forgotten to turn my alarm off. I lie back but find that I can’t go back to sleep, so I decide I might as well be productive. I tidy up again, since Ashley has managed to make another mess in the time that I’ve been asleep. I think about the dream that I had, and I can’t shake the feeling that the logic of it all really does make sense. If I sell the ring, I can quit my horrible job and still have some time to search desperately for any kind of position at some local publication. My father used to be fairly wealthy, so I am sure that the ring is worth a significant sum. I surprise myself with how quickly I resolve to do what my mother suggested in the dream, but I realize that it is a decision I could have made long ago if it had just occurred to me.
I go to my closet and reach up to the back of the top shelf, where there is a box I made for my mother when I was in high school. It has a secret compartment, and inside I find her ring, perfectly safe. I marvel at how large the diamond is and wonder how I did not think of this before. I take the ring, throw my wallet and keys into my purse, and head for the door, hoping to get out of the apartment before Ashley wakes up. At the last minute, I decide to take Lilly with me for moral support. I strap her into her car seat and we head off.
I pull into the address that I found on Google, which happens to be in a pretty seedy part of town. I study the building in front of me. It is dingy and run-down, with a dusty sign over the door reading “Mick’s Pawn Shop” painted in an ugly burnt orange color. There are few other cars in the parking lot. “Okay, let’s do this thing,” I murmur to Lilly. I hoist her up onto my hip and walk toward the door. A bell rings as I push it open and I stop, taking a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dim interior. I seek out the counter quickly, not wanting to spend too much time taking interest in other people’s unwanted items. The man behind the counter looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place him.
“Do I know you?” I ask.
He shakes his head a little too quickly. “Nope,” he replies, but I am sure that I saw a flash of recognition in his eyes too, almost an excitement. “What can I do for you?” he says.
“I’m looking to sell a diamond engagement ring,” I reply a little sheepishly.
“Ooh, picked the wrong guy?” His eyes twinkle. I notice that he has a nice smile and that his five o’clock shadow highlights his strong jaw nicely.
“Actually, it was my mother’s.” I turn my eyes down. “She died.” I feel more embarrassment—what must I look like to him, selling my dead mother’s wedding ring?
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says with just the right amount of sincerity and reassurance. “Well, let’s have a look, shall we?”
I take the ring out of my purse and lay it on the counter. He whistles, impressed.
“Let me just take this to the back and I’ll get you an estimate, okay?”
I nod, and he pushes a curtain aside, slipping through into a back room. I can see him bustling around through the space left between the curtain and the doorjamb in which it sits. He has on faded, torn jeans with a thin layer of dust over them and a plain gray t-shirt. He puts on the kind of square glasses that make me think of the kids on the Math Olympiad team that everyone made fun of in high school. He bends studiously over the ring, and then sets it aside. He reaches into a drawer and pulls out a bottle of what look like some pretty hefty pills and pops a few.
Something about this makes me feel very uncomfortable, so I turn to Lilly, bouncing her and making faces, trying to get her to laugh. I am playfully blowing raspberries on her belly when I feel something cold and hard on the back of my neck and a man’s voice low in my ear.
“Busted,” he breathes. “You work at Omega Bank, and I’ve been following you around for weeks,” he chuckles to himself, “And out of nowhere you show up here… It was meant to be.”
My mind is racing. He has a gun, and he’s not making any sense. Those pills must have been for some kind of personality disorder—he’s actually laughing while holding me at gunpoint. I thought that kind of thing only happened with villains in comic books. Suddenly I realize where I know him from: he was the guy with the low-slung jeans from the bank yesterday, the one I looked down upon because I was in such a funk. I panic and clutch Lilly closer to me, shielding her with my body.
“Listen, I don’t know what you want from me, but please don’t harm the baby,” I plead.
His laughter grows louder. “Oh I don’t want to hurt you or your precious little tyke, Ms. Tyler. I just want you to do me an itsy bitsy favor.” He pitches his voice high on the last three words, emphasizing just how itsy and bitsy this favor will be. He has a firm grasp on my arm and the gun is still pressed to my skin. “I need you,” he says, “to break into your little bank for me.” His voice is low and chillingly polite.
My breath starts coming in short bursts. I don’t know anything about robbing banks, I am a mere clerk, and I have no special privileges or passwords that would help this man get anywhere near the vaults. I tell him this in a rush, each word blending into the next.
“Please just get into your car, Ms. Tyler,” he intones. “Things will work out much better for you if you do.”
We walk to my car, me still clinging to Lilly and he with the gun concealed inside his jacket. I am numb as I strap Lilly in again, and I ache letting her out of my arms, but I know she will be safer this way.
“To the bank!” he says excitedly, like we’re a family taking a trip to the ice cream parlor.
I note the irony of this as I pull out of the parking lot slowly, trying to buy myself time. My mind is a complete blank: I cannot think of a way to get out of this without putting Lilly in danger. I have no idea what he will make me do once we get there. I am crawling.
“Step on it, if you please.” He winks at me.
I nudge the gas pedal and we are going exactly the speed limit.
“I said,” he says as he moves the gun out from under his jacket, “Step on it.”
This exchange continues until I feel the car shaking around us. We are travelling at eighty miles per hour down a forty mile per hour road. I am holding my breath, praying silently, and sure enough bright blue lights appear in my rearview mirror.
“Okay. Pull over and act normal. You’ll take the ticket, and then we’ll be on our way. Nothing to worry about,” he sang.
The cop strolled up to my window and greeted me with the usual Do you know why I pulled you over? and License and registration please. I am shaking and my hands are clammy as I reach over the man next to me and open the glove compartment. He is reclining in his seat, a picture of relaxation. My hand brushes the solid form of the gun under his jacket and exposes it a little. I freeze. I move the jacket further off of the gun, pretending that I am only brushing up against it accidentally as I search for my registration. I find it and turn back to the cop, leaning back so he has a clear view of my passenger. I hand my license and documents to him, and when we make eye contact I mouth, Help me. I cut my eyes to the man sitting next to me and the cop’s eyes widen in surprise.
He nods and says, “Could you please step out of the car, ma’am?”
As soon as I am out he pulls out his own firearm and aims it at the man, shouting crisply that he must keep his hands visible and not make any sudden movements. I snatch Lilly out of the backseat and edge away from the car, but I don’t get far enough away before two shots are fired. Both men have fired their weapons and they both had exceptional aim.
They are dead.
I stare at the scene and the edges of everything go fuzzy. The blood seeping out of the bullet holes in the two men in front of me sends a scent of staleness and rust into the air. I sway and stumble backwards to find the guardrail on the other side of the road, still holding a silent, wide-eyed Lilly to my chest. I sink onto the hard metal and remind myself to breathe.
After the ambulance and several more police officers arrive, one comes up to me with a piece of paper in his hand. He gives it to me, saying it was found in the strange man’s pocket. I unfold it and it is a detailed sketch of my face smiling back at me. The words Omega Bank are scrawled at the bottom. I take a shaky breath and crumple the piece of paper, throwing it to the ground. The words Omega Bank can’t be my identity, because I know now that I will do whatever it takes to live out my dream. I am no longer a planner. I will figure out how to take care of Lilly and Ashley as I go. If I have to start out making copies and fetching coffee, I will. But I know that one day I will see those places that are just words on a piece of paper to me at the moment. In spite of everything, I feel weightless. Free.

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