In my head I was rolling my eyes as one of my last customers for the day asked to see the price of one of the home decor pieces high on the wall next to the register. I knew from my nearly three year long experience working at the strip mall outlet that she definitely wasn't going to buy the ugly farmhouse key rack she requested.
Unfortunately, I never got the chance to actually roll my eyes because ten minutes before 9pm at the end of my shift, three guys rushed along the huge glass windows of our store front into the store brandishing guns and shouting at everyone. It was surreal. I'd seen this type of scene in a dozen movies, but now it was somehow happening to me in reality.
EVERYBODY GET DOWN ON THE GROUND NOW!
Key rack still in hand, I shifted hard to the floor, and my co-worker, who was deaf in one ear did the same right next to me before she began to cry then sob. Just as suddenly, we heard a loud noise and some commotion near the front and then a scream from a customer. This was the first and last time during the whole ordeal that I ever looked up.
One of the gunmen ran straight for the register and began yelling.
WHO IS THE F--KING MANAGER? OPEN THIS S--T RIGHT NOW!
Everyone up front heard the click of his gun. My assistant manager who was on the opposite side of the register identified herself and was forcefully pulled at gunpoint to the register while the other two gunmen started rounding up jewelry, purses, phones, wallets, and anything the rest of the customers had. My crying co-worker and I were next. The guys were yelling and shoving but we had nothing because by store policy, during shift, our personal items had to be locked up.
Did my life flash before my eyes? What was I thinking? Was I scared? Did I cry? For some reason at that very moment, even though my heart was pounding out of my ears, I remembered this news story about a little girl who had been kidnapped and managed to escape. The little girls father had had a conversation with her about adults who weren't okay, and in that conversation he'd told her if ever she was in a life and death situation, she had two choices: she could lay there and wait to die and never see her family again, or if she saw some type of opportunity, she could fight with everything she had and try to find a way out and back to them.
Thinking about this, I told myself to calm down and to grip the key rack as hard as I could. I squeezed it tighter and tighter until I was white knuckling it, and I told myself over and over again like a little mantra, if anything happens, if your co-workers are in danger, if they try to hurt someone or you, you're going to grab this rack and swing it as hard as you can at them. My hands were hurting, but I kept squeezing the rack, and kept repeating, "breathe, just breathe."
My assistant manager was telling the man with the gun currently on her that we had nothing in the register---which was basically true because at the end of shift, we start counting the register down a half hour earlier so all big bills are gone in the tills but the guy kept yelling and then pointing the gun at her to open it and she did. There was about $50 dollars in small bills and change in there which the guy grabbed none to happy.
The next few seconds were as much of a blur as how it had all began. I saw the rushing of feet beside me, I heard the door chime, and just like that, they were all gone. The assistant manager ran to lock the front door and then we all sort of stood up dazed and in disbelief. As I stood, I tried to drop the key rack but it didn't release at first because my fear sweat and grip still had it temporarily stuck to me. We came around the corner to find out what had happened to the screaming customer and it turned out they'd hit her with their gun when she'd tried to refuse to give up her purse. Thankfully she'd managed just a welt on her forehead and nothing worse.
The police came a couple minutes later. They asked me to step outside and for my ID and to just tell them all what had happened. I told them as much as I could but I never really saw any of these guys faces, but I could certainly tell them what the hell a farmhouse key rack looked like! When they were done with their interview, I walked back into the store and straight to the assistant manager and I told her point blank, I quit. This was a last straw among many related to the failings of this job and I wasn't about to die over minimum wage.
I then slowly walked to the customer bathroom, shut and locked the door, and saw myself in the mirror for the first time. I have NEVER seen myself look so absolutely f---ked up outside of a funeral. It was actually frightening. It was at that moment that the dam broke and I burst into tears. All the adrenaline I'd had to hold on to, hearing my terrified co-worker crying beside me the entire time, hearing the customer screams, knowing I could have died...it all came flooding over me.
I did actually quit that day. Just took all my stuff from my locker, I had direct deposit so I didn't need to come in for my check, deleted the work number from my phone, and I have literally never been back there or spoken to anyone from that job since or ever worked in retail again. It wasn't a case of fear ruling my life, because at any other job I've worked I would have probably gone back, but we'd complained for months about lack of security...everyone in the strip mall had, but the company and the facility had done nothing about it---not installed security cameras we asked for, not hired night guards, not fixed shotty lights, not fixed the faulty metal detectors and just put everyone at undue risk.
I literally hope you never have to go through this, and obviously if someone wants to kill you, they will, but my one piece of advice is to take the advice of that dad in that if you have any sort of chance in a life or death situation, stay calm and try to focus your efforts on finding a way to fight your way back to your family if there is no other option. That doesn't mean 'be the hero every time," but sometimes staying calm and not doing anything stupid, can save your life. I can't say what would have happened if they had tried to hurt me, but the experience gave me the obvious appreciation for how fleeting life can be and it has helped me deal with a lot of emergency situations that would come later in my life.