Saturday, September 3, 2011

In an instant...

Over the past few days and weeks I have been reminded how life can an instant. Sometimes the changes are subtle and sometimes they are more profound but there are those moments which you know you will never be the same.

Tonight I had one of those moments, in a Walmart. Let me first say that I am not a big Walmart fan. I much prefer Target for many reasons. Especially in the area I live. Ashleigh and I have for years called the store I went to tonight "Ghetto Walmart". It is small, always crowded and under staffed and usually not very clean. I hadn't stepped inside that store for 2-3 years at least.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that they were remodeling "Ghetto Walmart" and I stopped for something really quick. I was in and out in under 15 minutes, not too bad. After I got home I realized that I had bought the wrong thing. I placed the receipt in the bag with the merchandise and put it in my car to return (where it has been for the past couple weeks).

Tonight after enjoying dinner and a movie at Cinema Grill with a friend and her son I decided to swing by "Ghetto Walmart" and get back my $10 bucks.  It was just before 10:00pm and the store was pretty quiet. I went to the customer service counter and the return process was slow but uneventful. With my $10 bucks in hand I decided to go ahead and pick up a few necessities while I was there. While looking down the isles I ran into an older gentleman employee who asked,
"How are you doing this evening?"
"I am good, how are you?" I replied.
He reminded me of my dad. Even more so when he said, "I am good but kind of slow today."
I laughed and told him, "We all have those days."
To which he replied, "Well  I am 86 so I have them more often."
I laughed again. "Today is my dad's 86th birthday".
"Mine was on Wednesday."
"Well then, Happy Birthday".

Our conversation was cut short by commotion and people talking and running. I didn't know what was happening. A female associate came toward us and said,
" There are gunmen in the store!" Unsure where they were or what I should do I started moving away from the front end of the store.  I stopped and looked for the older gentleman employee, but never saw him again.  On my way towards the back I ran into a young mother and her two daughters, probably about 4 and 7 years old. By this time the employees had vanished so I quietly whispered to her what I had been told. The older of the two girls heard me and started to cry, obviously understanding what I had said. She was visibly shaken and scared. Without thinking the young mother and I huddled toward the side of the isle and knealt down, sheltering the two girls between our bodies. She reached for her phone to call 911 (which I  am sure others were already doing as well). It was just then that I realized that I didn't even have my phone. I had left it charging in my car outside.

We were kneeling in the isle when another store associate told us to go to the back of the store.  The two little girls were crying so I took the older girl by the hand and stayed next to her mom who picked up the smaller girl and we  followed other customers and employees through the back rooms and out the back of the store. At this point we had no idea what was going on inside. Were the gunmen still in there? Was everyone ok?

After a few minutes we heard the sirens telling us help was on it's way. It was the waiting that was the hardest, no one came to tell us what was going on or what to do. I was scared but holding it together so I could help reassure the girls that we were safe and everything would be ok (but I wasn't really sure myself).

I have no idea how long we were out there, it always seems like an eternity when adrenaline has taken over. I am wising I had my phone. I think about my loved ones and wish I could contact them. I don't feel like I am safe and lots of "what if's" run though my mind as I try to keep calm. The mom of the two girls makes a couple of calls, letting her loved ones know what is going on. She too is scared but keeping a brave face for her girls.

Eventually, we are escorted back inside but told we need to stay in a certain part of the store while the police secure the area. A few employees start talking about "last time" and that they thought it was the same guys that had held one of them at gunpoint during a previous incident. Obviously this had happened before. Other employees try to keep us as calm and comfortable as possible, bringing bottled water and folding chairs. Police officers come back to ask  if anyone saw the gunmen and take those who had to begin getting their statements. I was lucky not to have seen anything. Whispering starts that they were unable to catch the gunmen after they ran away on foot.

More waiting. The girls next to me are calming down. We talk about "normal" things and even laugh at the fact that the older of the the two girls has lost one of her shoes in all the commotion...only to be found later in mom's purse. Upon finding the missing shoe in her purse the mom also finds a roll of ribbon she stuffed in there but doesn't want to take without paying for. I check my purse too and sure enough the hair clips I had been looking at just before my conversation with the old gentlemen are tucked neatly inside. I set them on a nearby shelf. That conversation seems like an eternity ago, and I think again about my dad. More waiting.

Finally, the assistant manager comes back and lets us know that the store and the perimeter have been secured and that we may leave. I walk with the stream of other customers toward the front of the store. The younger of the two girls grabs my hand (we're friends now). Her mother gives me a hug and tells me, "Thank you". I tell her, "You're welcome" knowing she and her girls helped me as much or more than I helped them.  We walk under crime tape that is being help up by a police officer. Lights flash in all directions and I try and remember where I parked my car. The older of the two girls runs toward a tall and anxious looking man in the parking lot, "Daddy!" I smile knowing they will be ok, but realize I don't even know their names.

I reach the car and search for my phone. I see a missed call from Ashleigh, and dial her number. It's good to hear her voice. I relay my evening's story and she tells me I need to move out of Aurora and I think I agree. I drive home and pull into my garage and quickly push the button to close the door.

Was I ever in any real danger, probably not. But, I was scared for my life just the same. This evening's experience has made me look at things (especially that particular Walmart) differently.

I am finally home, but forever changed.