Three Methods to Save Your Life, Chapter 1

By Stacia Levy

ey, Sharona.” Kevin Wasserman from hardware sales poured a cup of coffee. “Looks like another shoplifter out in jewelry.”

“Yeah?” I was standing next to him in the break room by the coffee maker, drinking my first cup of the day, which I really needed to finish before heading back to the floor. Shoplifters in this half-assed retail store in south Sacramento were pretty much an everyday event, as regular as break time—when they usually happened.

So far a predictable day. A day when I’d woken up late with some guy from my apartment building who, even then, I’d almost forgotten after drinking too much the night before. Wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my crappy life, which had already begun to spiral down into no apparent future. And I was thirty-three, a time you should be firmly on track to somewhere or other. No idea this was the day that would change that trajectory, setting me on the path to somewhere.

“Security’s not worth their bad uniforms.” Jake Anderson, from insurance sales, joined us at the coffee maker. He and Kevin were both tall, looked somewhat alike in terms of their slim body build and lean facial features, but there the resemblance ended. Jake was black and Kevin white, but more noticeably, Jake tried so hard to be the company man, in his suit and tie, that it was pathetic. Kevin didn’t even bother—in jeans, shirttail hanging out.

We stood meditating in silent agreement about worthless security. “So have they actually caught the guy—or girl—yet?” Kevin asked. Not that it mattered much. Security didn’t have the authority to do anything—except call the police, who’d just administer a strongly worded scolding.

“Yeah.” Jake shrugged. “And it’s ‘them.’ Four guys, gangbanger type. Security was talking to them in jewelry when I passed.”

I took another drink of coffee, which the guys did too. We didn’t have much else to talk about. Basically three strangers who only saw each other in the break room a couple of times a week.

Not wanting, necessarily, to go out there, back to clothing, while the thing with the shoplifters was going down, I said, “So, Kevin. Why are you here?”

“What?” He glanced at me. “Taking my break. Okay with you?”

“No, I mean working here. Not doing some real job. You know.”

“Well, don’t know if you heard, but there’s a recession going on.”

We were all thirty-something then, in 2009, the beginning of the long “economic downturn” we thought would last only a year at the most. Then we’d get on with our lives.

“How about you, Jake?”

I remember he’d opened his mouth to answer. But he never got a chance because it was then the first gunshot sounded.

We stood frozen.

I don’t know about the guys, but it was the first time I’d heard a live gunshot. It was followed by four more.

“Jesus Christ.” Kevin came to life first, grabbing my arm, pulling Jake along, to the emergency exit across the room.

Jake pushed the door. And pushed.

“What’s the matter with you?” I’d never heard Kevin, who always seemed too detached to get excited about much, raise his voice. “Open the goddamned door.” He kicked at it. It didn’t move.

“Oh, shit.” He stood still.

“What?” I was shaking. I think I’d dropped my cup. Coffee was spreading across the floor anyway.

“It’s blocked. What do you think?”

“Why’s it blocked?” Jake was still pushing at it. “A fucking emergency exit?” Never heard him swear like that before, but then you don’t talk that way when you’re around customers most of the day. On a reasonable day.

Kevin gave a brief laugh. “By some boxes, delivery of something. I remember noticing them this morning when I drove up and thinking, ‘Shit, that’s not to code.’”

We just stood there. There was noise out on the floor. A couple of screams. Running footsteps. Crying. More gunshots. They sounded closer now.

“We still need to get out.” My voice was distant in my own ears, as if I’d left my body.

The guys nodded. We’d all calmed down a little, maybe the adrenaline rush slowing, as if our bodies realized we needed to concentrate if we were going to survive. The men were probably thinking the same thing I was: the only other door to the break room was out to the hall with the restrooms one way, directly out to the floor the other. And it was probably only minutes before the gunmen made it over to the break room, the first door off the hall, and that door didn’t lock.

“Come on,” Kevin said. “We need to take our chances. Find somewhere else to hide.”

“Where the hell is that?” Jake’s voice came out higher than usual.

“The conference room.” It hit me that it was at the end of the hall and could buy us some time. There were no windows and the only door to the hall locked. As if what went on in there was national security instead of three asshole managers monkeying with the mission statement. Or playing with themselves, for all you knew. Letting the place go to hell so much that a few post-pubescent punks could take it over in three minutes.

Jake opened the door and looked out. “No one’s here. Let’s go.”

We darted into the hall.

Dylan Alvarez from sporting goods was ambling down the hall toward us from the men’s room, eyes closed in concentration, in the groove with whatever was coming from his earbuds.

“Come on, asshole.” Kevin almost ran over him, yanking him along.

“Hey.” Dylan yanked out the buds. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Trying to save your pathetic life.”

The commotion out on the floor was closer now, and individual voices stood out: the adolescent whine of one of the gunmen, another already dipping down into manhood.

“We’ve got to move.” Jake put his hand at the small of my back as we ran down the hall.

Kev got out his plastic key and hovered it over the plate next to the door. The light stayed red. No beep.

“Flip it over, man,” Jake said.

Kevin complied, trying again. No change.

I could hear my own breath catching.

“Maybe our keys don’t work on the conference room,” Dylan said. “Typical.”

“Let me try.” Jake reached for the key, but Kevin jerked his hand once more across the pad.

This time the buzz sounded, the light turned green, and Jake and Kevin yanked the door open.

The voices of the gunmen faded as they stampeded past the hall.

And then we were in the conference room. The door slammed behind us. It locked automatically, one of those safety doors that opened without a key only from the inside, when you pushed on the bar—like the exit out of the break room was supposed to.

We all let our breath out; Kevin and I sagged against the conference table.

“Anyone got a phone?” Kevin said.

“Someone must have called it in already,” I said.

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Jake said. “I didn’t hear sirens.”

“That’s because you can’t hear anything in here,” Kevin snapped. “It’s a freaking bunker. The walls are soundproof.”

Dylan had gotten out his phone and was tapping away.

“There’s a newsfeed on this,” he said. “Police are outside.”

“Well, why the hell aren’t they doing anything?”

“Because it’s a hostage situation. They’re holding about thirty people out on the floor.”

“Let’s barricade the door,” I said. “Shove the table up against it. Everyone grab an end.”

We tugged and pushed at the table and banged it against the door.

“That secures it pretty well,” Jake said. “Still…” He left the thought unfinished.

I was thinking, probably along with the guys, that the table and door weren’t much of a barrier against bullets blasting through.

There were boxes of files lining the room. “The boxes,” I said. They could be an additional wall between us and the gunmen.

“Always knew that paperwork must be good for something,” Kevin said.

“Let’s all take a section,” Jake said. “Pile them up on the table and against the door. Sharona, think you can do this?”

“And why the hell couldn’t I?” I worked out four times a week and took karate twice. Had nothing better to do with my time.

“No time to worry about gender stereotypes,” Kevin said. “Sharona, if you can, you can. Let’s do it.”

Damned right I could do it. I climbed up on the table. “Form an assembly line,” I said. “The three of you line up, grab the boxes, and pass them up to me. Let’s do it.”

The boxes felt like loads of bricks. Jake was stoically silent during the process, but Dylan swore in Spanish a couple of times, Kevin in what I thought was Yiddish. It would have been funny under other circumstances, if I wasn’t trying to control my shaking.

After five minutes I stopped and looked at the wall we had put up. I swiped the sweat mixed with tears on my face—I hadn’t realized I’d been crying.

“Goddammit, Sharona,” Kevin said. He was at the end of the line, closest to the table. “Take this box already.”

I grabbed it, still looking at the wall of boxes. “This is wrong.”

“What do you mean, wrong?” Dylan asked.

“The direction, the angle,” I said. “We need to turn them around, see—so they’re lengthwise. So a bullet will take longer to pass through.”

Kevin let his breath out in a snort. “Okay, let me get up there and I’ll do it.”

“I got it.” I yanked one around. “Just keep passing them up, okay, and I’ll catch up in a minute.”

In ten minutes we had that barrier up, about thirty boxes lined across and up the door.

I swiped at the sweat dripping down my neck and was hit by the rank, musky odor rising from my shirt, and didn’t care.

Dylan had gotten out his phone again.

“What’s going on?” Jake asked. “Have they killed anyone?”

“Yes. One.” Dylan scrolled down, reading the report. “And two shot.”

“What the hell do they want?” Kevin asked.

“It doesn’t—oh, wait.” Dylan squinted at the screen. “It looks like they’re demanding three million dollars and a plane to Argentina.”

We all fell silent.

“Does anyone want to call someone?” Dylan spoke. “You can use my phone.”

“No,” Jake said. “Just my ex-wife, who probably wouldn’t want to hear it.”

Kevin shook his head, leaning against the wall, arms folded.

“Sharona?”

“No, no one.” Who would I call? “Don’t you want to call your parents or something, Dylan?”

“They’ve kind of made it clear they don’t want to hear from me. Well, it looks like we got each other at least.” He laughed. “Isn’t that great? Not the way I’d ever imagined going.”

Oh, this was totally stupid. “Call 9-1-1,” I said. “Let them know we’re in here.”

“Why?” Dylan shot back. “So they can, what, notify the police, the same ones who just let a couple of people get shot? Uh, no, sorry. I think I’ll just chill right here for a while.”

After that we were all quiet.

 

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