Read 23 Minutes Online

Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (2 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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The woman's smile does not seem any less forced than her offer to be of assistance. “Who are you looking for?”

Zoe does not tell her that, grammatically speaking, this should be:
For whom are you looking?
In a world of shifting group homes and social workers who burn out or move on just when you get used to them, Zoe likes the order imposed on language by grammar. Still, she generally tries to avoid attention. So she simply answers, “William Henry Harrison.”

William Henry Harrison is Zoe's favorite president. He was only in office for thirty-two days, and he was sick for just about all of them, since he caught pneumonia at his inauguration, and then he died. Zoe figures you just have to love someone who's that damn unlucky.

“Harrison …” The teller opens her change drawer and looks through some loose coins, murmuring, “Pierce … Adams … other Adams … FDR …,” perhaps thinking Zoe might be convinced to revise her presidential dollar needs. “No, sorry.” Yet another insincere smile.

“That's OK,” Zoe says. She isn't even sure, now that she thinks about it, whether she has a dollar's worth of change in her pocket to pay for a presidential dollar.

She steps away from the teller counter. There's a coffee bar set up on a low table in the sitting area, with a sign that says “COMPLIMENTARY COFFEE FOR OUR CUSTOMERS.” Outdoors, it's still pouring, and coffee would certainly help chase away the chill in her bones, but she wonders if asking for and not receiving a William Henry Harrison dollar qualifies her as a customer.

Without glancing at the guard to see if he's still watching her, she goes back to the bank-slips stand, which is just to the side of the row of tellers. She opens her folder. She shuffles her papers. Takes yet another slip from its cubbyhole and once again tries for the reindeer names. Still only eight. She compares with her previous list, hoping it's a different eight; but, no, there's someone she's consistently leaving out.

And still no sign of the rain letting up. Zoe decides she will take the drenching required to cross the street to the card shop. She might even find something appropriate for Mrs. Davies. It would be just like Hallmark to have a line of cards for people who need to apologize to their housemothers. Not that Zoe would actually
buy
a card. But she could memorize a suitable sentiment.

Just as she steps away from the table, into the bank strides a twitchy, self-absorbed-looking man who obviously takes the weather as a personal affront. Zoe can tell all this from his posture, since he's huddled into his raincoat: head down, shoulders up, hands jammed into pockets. He nearly plows into Zoe, proving yet again what Zoe already knows: Kids, even older kids who have done their best to make themselves look tough, are invisible.

Zoe takes a hurried step back despite her oft-declared opinion that the world would be a better place if people would simply
refrain from walking in any direction they aren't actually facing.

And so she walks backward onto the foot of the young man, a customer who has come to use the deposit or withdrawal slips.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” he says—polite, not sarcastic—even though
she
and not
he
is the one clearly at fault. He catches hold of her left elbow—possibly to keep her from falling, since she's off-balance; possibly simply to protect himself from further trampling.

The forms Zoe has been pretending to fill out slide free from her folder and flutter floor-ward, along with a few of the pages she has risked Mrs. Davies's wrath to get hold of.

“I am such an idiot,” Zoe mutters.

“No, really, this sort of thing happens to everyone.”

The young man has paperwork of his own, though he has sensibly chosen to keep his held securely in one of those pouch-like office envelopes that close with a string. Still, he crouches down to help retrieve Zoe's papers. He's probably only eight or nine years older than she is, but at this time in their lives that's a pretty big difference: He moves with the self-assurance of an adult. A successful adult, she decides, with a snap judgment of his haircut and his clothes. Clearly, he goes to a stylist, not a simple barber or a trainee at the Rochester School of Beauty, where Zoe goes—
when
Zoe goes. And he wears his tailored jacket and button-down shirt without a tie and paired with jeans, a look she labels a bit too self-consciously trendy. She understands that her look—a ponytail coupled with thrift-shop jeans and tee—labels her a loser. Her hair is dyed blue (intentionally so) and is cut raggedly (more happenstance than statement). Normally, Zoe is pleased with her look, as it lets her fit in where she wants to, and pretty much scares everyone else away.

Zoe isn't familiar enough with banks to know if it's reasonable
to have five separate slips (three pink and two white), but suspects it probably is not. “It's OK, it's OK,” she tells the guy, snatching the papers from his hands so he can't see that she's only written on the backs of them, and that what she's written are lists of names rather than numbers, which might at least
seem
to be bank- or money-related.

“Thank you,” she says. She's so intent on retrieving the bank slips that she loses track of holding tight to her folder. The rest of her papers slide free and cascade to the floor between them.

“You're welcome.” His voice is nice without sounding put on. Except he's looking at one of the slips that has landed list-side-up, clearly revealing her lack of banking seriousness:

              
Rudolph

Vixen

              
Dasher

Comet

              
Dancer

Cupid

              
Donner

Prancer

He's frowning, and she's sure he's about to report her to the proper authorities. Or at the very least, to take back what he said about her not being an idiot.

But what he says is, “Blitzen.” He looks up at her, and she realizes he's somewhere between friendly and amused. “The one you've left out is Blitzen.”

“Thank you,” Zoe repeats, aware that now she
is
mumbling.

Wonderful. He thinks she's cute in a clumsy, gawky-little-kid way. People always seem to assume short girls are younger than they really are.

As for him … he has good hair—light brown and well-styled—but
his features are more
interesting
than
attractive
, Zoe thinks.

However, she gives his smile an A+.

Too bad he's laughing at her.

Should she say it? she wonders, should she say
playback
—the word that will stop the orderly progression of time and rewind to twenty-three minutes earlier, to
before
she made an idiot of herself in front of this guy?
No
, she tells herself.
Duh! He's in his mid-twenties!
Since when has she been in the habit of looking appraisingly at adult men who aren't singers or actors? And besides, that would mean reliving the whole getting-caught-in-the-rain thing.

A foot comes down on the reindeer paper, and it belongs to the bank guard. And the guard asks, “Any trouble here?”

“Not at all,” the young guy says, “except for …,”—he indicates the paper under the guard's shoe—“the fact that you appear to be stepping on one of our papers.”

Ooh,
our
. He's aligning himself with her: the two of them vs. the guard.

The guard, who has observed them come in separately, who sees how totally different from one another they are on the socially acceptable scale, seems to suspect they must be up to something, but he clearly hasn't determined
what
yet.

Almost reluctantly, the guard lifts his foot, then leans down for a closer look. Zoe shifts forward to intercept the paper before he can read it, and they clunk heads. While she and the guard are distracted, her co-conspirator with the nice jacket and the nicer smile whisks the bank slip off the floor. He wipes it on his jeans, which might be to brush off the guard's footprint, or might be an excuse to hand the paper to Zoe writing-side down.

“Thank you,” she says—mumbles—again. She hurriedly jams all
the papers, bank slips and group home forms, back into the folder.

Jacket Guy is definitely amused, and the guard is definitely not.

Jacket stands, a quick, graceful movement, and extends a hand for Zoe, who is neither quick nor graceful despite—or maybe precisely because of—his help.

“Thank you,” Jacket says to the guard. He sounds like a perfect example of impeccable manners—but he's also clearly saying,
You can go now.

Not that she needed Jacket's help. Or anyone's. Zoe prides herself on being self-sufficient.

Rain or no rain, she determines to dash across the street to the card shop, where she won't stick out so badly; and it is at that exact moment she loses the attention of the interesting-rather-than-good-looking Jacket. He is staring beyond her with an expression she can't quite make out before his face shuts down entirely, blank and intentionally unreadable. At that same moment there's a ruckus behind her. One of the bank tellers squeals. The guard turns to see if there's something wrong going on in his bank—something more wrong than Zoe—and she sees that his hand actually starts moving toward the gun he wears on his hip, but then he freezes.

This has nothing to do with you
, Zoe tells herself.
None of your business. Get out of here now.
At this moment, there seem to be several options for getting out, and playing back time is only one of them.

But if there's something dangerous going on behind her, surely she'd be better off knowing what that danger is.

Though perhaps not …

Because once she, too, has slowly turned around, she sees the twitchy customer, the one who entered the bank so quickly he'd
almost run her down. And he has a gun. He just hasn't decided yet where to point it. He's waving it at the row of five tellers, at the customers, at the guard, who—though he has a weapon of his own—holds both hands up and away from his body in a conciliatory gesture.

It's cold out, and wet, so she had noticed without really noting that this … well, as it turns out,
bank robber
… had come in with his shoulders hunched and his raincoat collar up around his face. Now she finally takes in that he has the brim of his baseball cap pulled down, obscuring all of his hair and much of his face. And now he is standing not three feet away from Zoe.

“Hands up!” he yells, sounding for all the world like he's channeling every crazed bank thief Zoe has ever seen on TV or in the movies. “Everybody, hands up!”

Everyone obeys, even the customers who are diving behind the few pieces of furniture in this suddenly way-too-open room. Even Zoe, who lets her folder—with all its papers—slip from her arms and drop to the floor.

Which is OK, because to make the playback work, she needs to put her arms around herself. Once the thief is distracted enough not to notice her, of course.

“Hands away from the gun!” he yells at the guard, although the guard's hands are already well away from the gun.

“They are, they are!” the guard assures him.

“You!” the gunman orders the teller whose window he's at, the one who helped—or rather didn't help—Zoe. “Keep filling the bag!”

She has a canvas bag into which she's been dumping all the money from her drawer. When she finishes, clumsy because of
her shaking, she looks to the gunman for further instructions. He indicates for her to hand the bag to the next teller.

“Nobody try anything!” Gun Man warns tellers and customers alike.

Although Zoe is the one who, by the unhappiest coincidence, happens to be standing closest to the thief, he's looking beyond her, watching the guard. Zoe brings her arms down and wraps them tight around herself, the first move to getting rid of this version of time. But the motion draws Gun Man's attention. He grabs hold of her arm roughly enough that the thought—the damn stupid thought—crosses her mind:
Ooh, that'll leave bruises.

More importantly, it will also prevent the playback from working.

“Take his gun,” the robber demands.

“What?” Zoe's brain is numb with the awfulness of the situation she's found herself in.

Which is no reason for him to use his free hand to slap her, the way people in movies always calm down the hysterical. Zoe has no idea why Hollywood writers seem to think a slap should have a calming influence. With her cheek red and stinging, she is more terrified than ever.

“There's no cause for that,” a level voice protests, and Zoe realizes it's Jacket, who was kind to her just moments before as he tried to deflect the ire of the bank guard, now trying to deflect the robber. “She's just a kid. I'll get the gun.”

In fact, he's already partway turned toward the guard, but Gun Man orders him, “Turn back around. Face me.”

Don't draw attention to yourself
, Zoe mentally wishes at Jacket.
Zoe has grown good at not drawing attention to herself.

Except, of course, that she's standing within being-slapped distance of a very nervous guy with a gun.

“Take the guard's gun,” the robber tells Zoe. “Now. With your left hand. Two fingers only. Slowly.”

Zoe hopes everyone can see she is not doing this of her own free will, that she is not part of this man's bank-robbing gang.

“Sorry,” she tells the guard.

But even as she reaches for the guard's weapon, Gun Man seems to snap. He suddenly starts shooting.

People scream and cover their heads with their hands.

Zoe has seen gunshot victims before. She knows what woefully inadequate protection hands are.

But for the moment, Gun Man is only shooting at the bank's cameras. Which Zoe supposes makes sense.

BOOK: 23 Minutes
8.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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