The thoughts started last year toward the end of fifth grade. Standing on the street corner, I imagined a black car pulling up. It wouldn’t be a nice car, but it wouldn’t be trashy either. Something like a Honda Civic coup or Toyota Celica. I’d hear the music blaring from his car before he rolled up, songs my dad liked to listen to like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. The guy would pull over and roll his windows down. He’d wear a Yankees cap or some sunglasses that would remind me of my dad, who I haven’t seen in a while since he moved an hour away to Philadelphia and started a new family. “Hey, kid,” he’d say. “Why’re you standing out here by yourself? Need a ride to school?” I’d get in the front seat. He’d let me control the radio.
My house faces a main road. My bus stop is a short walk to the corner of the block. Every time I walk this way, I think of how my dad used to walk me to the corner every morning and give a single wave as I rode off to school. My best friend Zeke would constantly mention how cool my dad was, and I’d feel proud to have a cool dad when most of my other friends’ parents were divorced.
Today I round the bus stop corner into the neighborhood on my way to the playground at the elementary school. At the house closest to the main street, gargoyles perch on either side of the stoop. A black Cadillac DeVille is backed in the driveway as if ready to peel out. In the mornings, the woman sees her husband off to work in her night dress, sometimes with curlers in her hair. After he leaves, she always lights a cigarette and stands with the glass-paned storm door cracked open. I can tell the inside of their house smells like knock-off Estée Lauder and menthol smoke. Their dinnerware has vines around the edges and faded fruit in the middle. She thinks it’s fine china, but she bought it from a thrift store.
The street I walk is shaped like a big crescent with the school at the end. Another to the left, just past the Italian house, loops around and comes out across from the school. I take the long way because I have time to kill and because Dad and I used to ride bikes this way after dinner sometimes. I wonder if someone would be bold enough to take me here, but I doubt it. For a Saturday it’s eerily quiet, like I’m the only person in the world. No cars whir by, driving too fast. No kids play in front yards. No dogs bark. Alone, I finish the loop and near the school. Incidentally, my dad went here for elementary school.
Lots of kids are here without parents, but that’s not unusual. I guess no one would expect a kidnapping to happen in broad daylight. That’s why I wait until dusk when I know everyone will be gone, when the summer sun cools and kids vanish into the neighborhood or parents pick them up in their minivans. I find an empty swing and sit facing the school where any man could approach to lure me in his car. I swing my legs deliberately to pick up momentum.
After the man offers to drive me to school and gives me control of the radio, he would drive without asking me for directions. I’d play a game with myself to see if he guesses I go to the nearby middle school. I don’t. I go to a private Christian school my dad pays for. He’d be leaning back in his car with his wrist hanging limp over the top of the steering wheel. When we’d cross into the next township, I’d say coolly, “My school’s the other way.”
“Huh,” he’d say, shooting me a sly grin. “Guess you’re skipping school today.” His Jersey accent would sound like the movies, like the guys in Good Fellas.
He’d drive me to some house in Trenton that would be more set apart from the others. We’d get out of the car. I’d take note of the address just in case. There’d be a front porch with a couch on it. Beside it on the ground would be an ashtray overflowing with squished cigarette butts. When we’d go inside, he’d invite me to have a look around. The carpets would need to be vacuumed, dishes would need to be washed, the trash overflowing with egg cartons and crumpled Miller Lite cans. It’d smell like smoke, weed, mildew, and cologne.
After inspecting the man’s small house, I’d meet him back out in the living room. “Take off your clothes,” he’d say. I’d be embarrassed and excited at the same time, but I’d slip off my shirt and pants then hesitate with my fingers in the waistline of my underpants. I’d never been naked in front of anyone before. “What are you waiting for?” he’d say. “I said take off your clothes.” Eyes closed, my underpants would slide down my legs. I just started puberty and I wouldn’t want anyone to see it. When I’d open my eyes, the man would be standing in front of me with the eyes of a wolf. Something in me would click, not yet understanding the feeling of desirability. I’d feel powerful.
On the playground, a red-headed girl hangs upside-down on the monkey bars, her skirt cascading over her head like a calla lily and revealing her Disney princess underwear. She seems like she could be easily bargained into a stranger’s car with a simple Polly Pocket collection. She acts so unaware of her surroundings and the boys’ eyes falling on her that finally a brown-haired, freckly girl says, “Don’t you know all the boys are looking at your panties?” The red-headed girl flips off and lands on her feet. Then she runs away to the slides and fireman pole.
A boy a few years younger than me sits on the swing beside me. He tries to swing as high as me, tries to make it some kind of competition, but I’m not here to swing harder. I can do that easy.
What do any of these kids think about in their spare time? Are they thinking about the Pokémon games or their dad’s favorite NBA team? Their friends? Those new Artemis Fowl books? Do any of them have thoughts like me? Do these kids hold a fragile animal, like a kitten or rabbit, and want to know what it feels like to break it in half? Have they never wanted to drop a big rock on a toad and watch its guts fly from its mouth? To stab their friends while playing with sticks and see how deep it can go? Do they not know what happens in frat houses, all those guys sticking their parts into other guys’ butts? I’ve never done any of those things, but I think about them all the time.
After I step out of my underwear, my kidnapper would lay down some ground rules. No phone. He’d keep it out of reach. I could only go to the bathroom outside. He’d throw my clothes away. I would eat what he tells me to. I would only speak when asked a question. After seeing me hard, he would give me a kiss and say, “You like that?” When I wouldn’t respond, mostly out of fear, he’d say, “I asked you a question.” There would only be one correct answer. “Yes,” I’d say. And the truth would be that I do like it. I’d waited for that moment. He’d go into the kitchen and bring back a fizzy drink. I’d stay put, not knowing if I’m allowed to move. He’d give me the drink. After drinking a few sips, I’d fall to the floor—able to see and hear, unable to move or feel.
A ball flies in front of me and I can’t stop myself from kicking it because I’m swinging so hard now. The kids chasing the ball don’t think twice about it flying off into the blacktop. They scream and chase after it. Hooligans.
The sun is setting. Kids should be leaving about now. Ever since my dad left, Mom and I eat when we’re hungry, never at a set time. She doesn’t cook for me anymore. I wait anxiously for my kidnapper to show up. Each time a car enters the lot to pick up a kid, my heart races at the possibility, but I know a kidnapper wouldn’t take someone in broad daylight . . . right? Kids aren’t taken that way. It’s only at night when the kidnappers have the protection of the darkness. That’s why I’m swinging until a little past dusk when I’ll be alone.
He’d scoop me off the floor and take me to the bedroom. Drop me on the hard and squeaky bed. He’d leave but keep the door open. My breathing would slow, and I’d drift in and out of consciousness. I’d think about why the hell I got into his car in the first place, what sick part of me thought that was a good idea. But then why did I want to do it? Why did I want to be here?
Sure, I think about snapping a kitten’s neck, stabbing Zeke while pretend sword-fighting, crushing a garden snake’s head with a rock. I think about setting my dad’s house on fire with everyone inside it and hearing their screams as they burn to death. I think about my mom’s boyfriend naked and even about him wanting to touch me. At nights I sometimes lie awake and wait for him to enter my room, though he never does, but something keeps me awake until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. Zeke talks about the girls in our class, but I don’t care about them. I think there must be something wrong with me, or maybe they think about the same stuff I do but don’t do anything about it.
The man would return. Faint hallway lights would cast shadows. I’d slip out of consciousness and wouldn’t feel anything, but I’d hear the shadows laughing. Nothing would hurt. Nothing would feel real anymore.
A car door slams in the playground parking lot. It’s a police officer. The sky had quickly transformed into that period after dusk where it’s hard for the eyes adjust to the lack of light, right before nightfall. Crickets chirp, and fireflies twinkle the field.
“Hey, kid, what are you doing out here?”
I jump off the swing. My sneakers skid in the mulch. “I lost track of time.”
“Do you need a ride home?”
“No, I live around the corner.”
“Well, get home. This area isn’t always safe.”
He drives away. I wonder what he thinks when he looks at me in the rearview mirror, if he thinks I’m here to cause trouble or look for it. If the cop had asked me again what I was doing here, I might have told the truth. He turns left out toward the busy street I live on. I cut through the neighborhood and walk home the short way.