ROSEWOOD is the safest district in
the county. Seriously, the Chatwit
Corporation took a poll. Last week a
local TV station filed a news report.
They talked to the mayor and
conducted a few man-on-the-street
interviews. Everyone was pleased.
“It’s a safe community, alright,” the
mayor stated, looking straight into
the camera. “Especially on Sundays.”
His words sound hokey, but it’s no
joke. Rosewood is like a sanctuary on
Sundays. What does that have to do
with me? Well, as we speak, I’m
stopped at a red light in downtown
Rosewood on a near-perfect Sunday
afternoon. According to statistics, I
couldn’t be any safer than I am right
now, so imagine my surprise when
two thugs with pantyhose stretched over their heads approach my car, throwing the whole theory into a tailspin. These aren’t suburban kids playing a prank; these guys probably rode the commuter train in from the east side in search of an easy target. Maybe they saw the news report.
With hostile gestures and aluminum baseball bats, the men proceed to carjack me. The two men wrestle me from behind the wheel with more force than is necessary, but rather than kicking me to the curb and taking my vehicle for its scrap-yard value, they bind me with electrical tape and lock me in the trunk. Professor Mendleton, my old college English teacher, would call this a memorable opening. I know it’s going to stick with me for a while.
So here I am, trapped in the cramped darkness of my trunk, thinking, Why me? I’m not rich or famous like most of the residents in Rosewood. I’m between jobs. I’ve got forty-seven dollars and change in the bank. I have no living relatives, no girlfriend, or support group to check in on me. No one is going to report me missing in the morning. The only person likely to make any noise is my landlord if I don’t pay the rent on time. So what do these goons want with me? There’s no way they could have mistaken my car for anything of value pictured in the Kelley Blue Book. If they were looking to make a few bucks, they would’ve homed in on the tricked-out Escalade idling next to me at the red light, not my piece of junk ride. Fortunately, I’ve read enough Raymond Chandler novels to know you always flex your muscles when being tied up. Thanks to that old trick, I manage to shimmy my arms free in less than ten minutes, and immediately pull the brake lights from their cubbies.
A moment later I’m able to free my legs and, with some difficulty, oust the tire iron from underneath the spare. I listen, hoping to catch some garrulous chatter from my kidnappers about where we’re headed and what they want, but they don’t break wind. Nothing respires from the car other than the familiar clamor of engine noise. I poise myself, waiting for the trip to end but, much like that foul Disney World rollercoaster, Space Mountain, the ride continues to jostle me around for entirely too long. By the time the car brakes to a halt, I am dizzy and sick to my stomach.
The engine shuts off and I hear the doors open and close. I brace myself awkwardly, tire iron in hand, readying myself for the trunk to pop open. Every muscle in my body is tense and primed for action. When the lid kicks open, sunlight pierces my dilated pupils, but I spring forward blindly anyway, swinging at the white light, oscillating the tire iron in my hands from one ear to the other. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m the protagonist.
I wake up in a dingy twelve-by-twelve living space. A sixty-watt bulb burns high above my throbbing head. A typewriter sits catty-corner to the far wall, accompanied by a large stack of blank writing paper. Other than these things, a Mason jar filled with lactescent water and a metal door with no handle, I’m alone. The room itself is stale and anechoic. The wall is solid concrete. The high ceiling is splotched with water-stains. There are no windows. The only color in the entire room is the tacky Aztec rug beneath the typewriter. The rest of the place is cold and gray. Professor Mendleton would say my description lacks detail. He’d want to know more: what the place smells like, what brand of typewriter it is, the works. I don’t see the point in all that. I don’t plan on staying any longer than I have to. If this were a story I had any control over, I’d be back at my apartment watching TV.
I punch a few random keys on the typewriter before taking it in my hands and throwing it against the door, shouting obscenities until my kidnappers file into the room. The first man is two hundred and thirty pounds of pent-up aggression. He still wears the pantyhose over his head to obscure his features. The rest of him is decked out in all black: shirt, jeans, boots. It’s not much of an outfit, but it gets my attention. The second fellow is sans pantyhose. He reeks of motor oil, is missing several teeth and his right ear, à la Van Gogh. Something tells me his is not a love story, though. It’s hard not to stare at the jagged remainders around the exposed canal. Judging from the discoloration and array of scar tissue crisscrossing his face, I’d say he’s taken a blow from everything Webster bothered giving a crooked definition to.
For a moment nothing happens. The two men size me up, exchange a few words in what sounds like a poor attempt at pig Latin, then proceed to kick and punch me tenaciously. By the time they finish, I’m short of breath and bleeding from my nose and mouth.
“Write,” Van Gogh instructs.
“Write … what?” I gasp, sucking air into my enervated lungs.
The two thugs chuckle as if I’ve just made a joke, then leave the room without clarifying my assignment. Professor Mendleton would call this setting the tone—a technique that didn’t sound quite so painful when he described it in class.
I brace myself against the wall and wait for my equilibrium to reestablish itself. Then I use the milky water to clean my wounds. I start writing immediately thereafter.
I have no idea what the requirements are or what the purpose of my task is, but, in hopes of avoiding another thrashing, I get to work. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a writer, but I know the proper elements of a good story. I manipulate the old typewriter proficiently, working my way around the F and C keys, both of which sustained irreparable damage during my panicked temper tantrum.
I complete a story—still unsure what it is they expect me to produce—and slide the pages under the door. To my dismay, my bellicose abductors return within the hour and knock me around like a tether ball.
“Write better,” Van Gogh recommends curtly.
I unfold myself from the fetal position once they’ve departed and collapse in front of the typewriter to work on a fresh idea.
By now I am physically and psychologically exhausted. The only things keeping me awake are several loose teeth and the metallic taste of blood on my tongue. I try to recall what I learned about literature in Professor Mendleton’s classes, but nothing comes to mind. I’m not sure, but I think what has just happened to me is called advancing the conflict. If I ever get out of here, I’ll make sure to look it up in my old Hodges Harbrace College Handbook. After another thoughtful moment, I decide to take my chances on plagiarism and write a condensed version of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. If my captors recognize the story, it could spell more loose teeth for me, but what choice do I have? It takes several hours but, eventually, I am able to produce an abridged version of Dostoevsky’s epic tale and slide it, page by page, under the door. I wait for a response until I can no longer keep my eyes open. At this point I’m not sure if I’ve accepted my predicament or lost the will to live altogether. Sore and fatigued, I drift in and out of consciousness, dreaming of Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha. I am jarred awake when the metal door cracks open once again. I curl into a ball instinctively and try to protect my head, mentally preparing my tender body for another casual beating.
When several minutes pass without any harm coming to me, I drag myself off the floor and venture over to the door. I peer through the crack tentatively. I can see a glass door propped open at the end of a long, bleak hallway and my car parked in a grassy lot just beyond. There is no sign of my abductors. I push the heavy door open for a better look. Its rusty hinges shriek in protest, but draw no response from my kidnappers. No one comes to check on me or discuss my manuscript’s oddly familiar storyline.
After some deliberation, I take a deep breath and limp down the hall. I move as fast as my bruised extremities will take me. I hobble past the glass door and across the parking lot to my car unhindered. I’m surprised to find the keys in the ignition. I crank the car and drive away quickly, following several road signs that eventually lead me to the interstate.
I drive ninety all the way back to the city, where I report my plight to the authorities. The baby-faced desk clerk looks me over as if I’ve just come from a bar brawl and not a hostage situation. He studies my strained red eyes and snorts knowingly. The blood forming a red mustache between my swollen nose and busted lips doesn’t fool him. He writes down very little and concludes: “You should be more careful.”
Disenchanted, I leave the police station.
Drew A. Carmichael is the author of two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, and several screenplays. His work has been published and rejected, lauded and chastised, and once burned in public. Carmichael has appeared in such journals as Hawai’i Pacific Review, Red Fez, CAIRN: The St. Andrews Review, among others. drewcarmichael.com
COPYRIGHT 2016 LITERARY JUICE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
On my way home I’m pulled over for not having any break lights. I try to explain how the lights got disconnected, but only manage to raise the officer’s suspicion and earn a roadside sobriety test.
“What happened to your face?” he inquires.
“Slipped in the bathtub. I already filed a report at the station.”
“Don’t be smart,” he says. Professor Mendleton would applaud this sad turn of events. He always said a good story never resolves the dilemma entirely, so an ending without justice would be right up the good professor's alley.
By the time I get back to my apartment, it’s seven p.m. on Monday. It seems like ages ago, but it’s only been thirty hours since my ordeal began. I step out of my torn and blood-stained clothes and look myself over in the mirror. It wouldn’t be hard to justify a trip to the emergency room, but I’m too tired to make the effort. I don’t even have the energy to conclude the narrative with an introspective word. Instead, I run myself a hot bath, exhaust a tube of Neosporin, and go to bed early.
Comfort. Photo by Fabrice Poussin
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