Eli

You never really know what your mind’s gonna run to when you’re dropped in the middle of a perfect quiet. I’m walking down Sherman and Main, about to hit the bookstore, and the sky’s staring back at me blue as anything, like somebody took a slice of the hottest star they could find and wrapped it around the world. It’s a weird sky. No clouds, no sun, just this unbelievable ice blue like the world’s folding in on itself, all those glaciers at the poles tearing through the air right above my head.

But even with the cold sky hanging over everything, everybody around me is wrapped up in their happiness. It’s zipped up to their necks. A girl with a shaved blonde head rolls a stroller past, and she’s laughing on the phone with someone. Across the street a sweet-looking old lady is sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper, and I start to smile until I realize the newspaper’s about the urban problem. But I know the day’s quiet when my biggest issue’s an elderly asian lady reading a racist paper. A blue Civic drives by just as I’m reaching the flower shop at the intersection, and it’s blasting All Along the Watchtower, the Jimi Hendrix version.

I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the Fro-Yo Palace is open right now. Yeah, it’s only like 9 a.m. but cravings are cravings, and I woke up on the side of the bed that had me itching for a cup of Mega Berry Blast like a motherfucker.

I’m coming up on this lady in a super nice fall coat when somebody, can’t tell you who it is, pulls the bag over my head. Shock is different for everyone, like fingerprints. You can speculate about it all you want, but you can’t ever know what you’d do if some scary shit happened to you until it actually happens. Me, my shock brings that quiet with it. Silence wraps itself around my skull like a wet towel till the only sounds I can recognize are inside the cramped room of my head.

I can’t hear anything that’s going on around me, can’t make sense of any of the noises that aren’t already inside me. I imagine people shouting, screaming like you do before you realize just how bad things actually are, when fear’s just blurry and indistinct. Before anybody turns the resolution up to like 100 and you realize exactly why and how you’re fucked.

My mind runs home, runs to that time Bryce was chasing me through the house and face-planted into the tile, gave himself a bloody nose that he couldn’t really blame anybody else for. Then it’s chasing after that one time Ana and I went around the kitchen, pulled out as many things we could find, flour, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and baked all of it into one big stomach bomb. I still have no idea how we didn’t have the runs for the rest of our natural born lives. Then it’s trying to reach one of those million times I went into my mami’s room while she was lying down watching TV, climbed into her bed and used her stomach as a pillow while HGTV played like muted rain behind me. The forever soundtrack to my saturday nights.

The amount of time it takes for them to snatch me and throw me into the back of that car? I’d have to say it rounds out to about 45 seconds. But I cross days i nside my head. Isn’t that wild?

I feel the big hands tight around my biceps, feel my shoulder hit an armrest when whoever it is that grabs me tosses me into the backseat like a bookbag (always was the weaker son; what a fucking joke). So I’m face down in the backseat for a little bit, my shoulder one wrong rollover away from snapping like a twig. The car speeds up and I feel someone behind me, tying my arms behind my back so my forearms are pressed up against each other. They sit me up. No one’s talking and all I can think is wow, are kidnappers supposed to be this quiet? The person next to me, the one that sat me up, speaks, and it’s a guy. He sounds more like somebody three-quarters of the way through their eight-hour at the DMV than anything else when he says,

“Don’t scream.”

I could laugh. Like I could scream even if I wanted to. Like my voice isn’t hiding from me, deep inside my chest where fear’s growing like a forest between my ribs.

And the sack. The damn sack over my head. Jesus, I’d really taken it for granted, hadn’t I? Breathing open air. My whole head is hot, and I feel like I’m gonna pass out. And I do. I fall into Big Guy’s lap, and what little dignity I had left runs out into the street to get hit by a semi truck.

***

I wake up to a loud purple room. The brightness is a little undercut by the peeling lavender paint, and for a second I think the walls are melting. I shift a little, and I realize my arms are still tied tight, except this time they’re wrapped behind the back of the chair I’m sitting in. I’m looking out at the room now through eyes like foggy glass, at the rickety wooden table in front of me with all the scratches on its surface, at the blacked out window just a few feet past it, and I’m thinking, kind of bizarrely, that this is what that interrogation room in the Bahamas must’ve looked like to my dad. He used to tell me a bunch of stuff, used to say that in the Caribbean, color pools in all of life’s parts, collects everywhere like runoff. No matter what happens there, good or bad, it happens hard, with more force than you could ever imagine.

But I’m not in Nassau right now (I don’t think?) and I’m not my dad (I thank God). There’s a sad little bulb hanging from the ceiling, trying its level best to do the work of a better light. Except for the chair I’m sitting in and the tiny table, the room’s empty.

I’m wrong though, because when I blink again, when all those things in my line of vision, the purple paint, the table, the slate gray cement floor, press up against each other and reality snaps closed behind them like a heavy vault door, I see the kid sitting in the corner. He’s in one of those white plastic chairs, the kind that can’t make it through a single barbecue without the legs bowing and splitting.

His head’s turned away from me, and he’s staring at one of the blackout windows like he’s waiting for the sun to come.

If you’re looking at his face he’s around the same age as me. Pretty like a girl, the kind of face the douchebags I hung out with in junior high would’ve had a field day with. But his eyes age him. They’re blacker than those bits of the universe light can’t touch. Creepy in that sad kind of way, like a house people can’t live in anymore.

And get this—the first thing I feel, looking at the kid who’s been tasked with literally keeping me hostage, is a little pity. Just enough to throw me for a loop. The guy looks too much like those half-naked little kids we’d see sometimes when mami drove too far downtown, the ones wearing sneakers that looked like they were one tag game away from falling apart.

One time we were driving downtown past the farmer’s market, mami, Bryce, and I (Ana was still a baby then; mami had left her home with the nanny). I must’ve been six or seven, which would’ve made Bryce nine or ten. While we were waiting at the intersection, waiting for the light to turn green, a Buick came in from the street to our left, blew right through the intersection, hit a little brown girl as she was crossing the street with her mom and an older lady I took to be her grandma. The Buick stopped. Some tall guy got out of it, some investment-banker, I’d-foreclose-on-your-house-at-the-drop-of-a-hat type. He was dressed in a black suit. And yeah, I was little, but I’ll never forget this—the guy walked up to the family, to the sobbing mom and grandma, took out his wallet, and offered them some bills. The mom was crouched over her unconscious little girl on the street, too distraught to pay attention to the guy. But the grandma? Oh, you should’ve seen that little old lady. Imagine this—an elderly woman in a pressed black wig and a pink floral print church dress launching herself at some guy twice her size. I don’t know how many times she hit him in the face (my memory says four or five) before he pushed her back and she fell.

Mr. Buick threw the bills down at the ground, at the family, got back into his car, and drove away. When our light turned green and mami drove past, I looked out at the window and watched as the mom picked up her unconscious little girl and walked back over to the sidewalk, the grandma limping behind her. The wind picked up the scattered money, and I watched green paper swirl around itself.

Mami never talked about it. Bryce tried to bring it up once, a few weeks after it happened, but she gave him this look that made him never want to bring it up again. And me? I was still little so I couldn’t understand exactly what had happened, but I knew how it made me feel. It made me nauseous to think about it, so I made sure I never did. Till now, staring up at this kid who has downtown written all over his field coat with all those damn pockets. All over his jeans, his boots, his face. And now I’m looking for anything, anything at all, that might tamp down the nausea. I need something to swallow up all that empty space in my head, because that morning at the intersection is trying to live inside it.

“Hey,” I call out.

He looks over at me and I’m thinking, damn, maybe he would’ve been able to handle those assholes I went to school with.

He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me like he’s waiting for me to finish. I’m surprised by how self-conscious that makes me feel. Now I gotta choose whatever I’m gonna say carefully, make sure it lands somewhere inside that tenuous middle ground of you’re so fucking screwed and but actually, can you tell me where the hell I am?

I was scared before, when they pulled that sack over my head and threw me into the back of that car. But now that my heart’s not beating so fast inside me, now that there’s not some huge guy with his hands tight around my arms, I’m mostly just annoyed. Irritated. Tired. Mentally emotionally spiritually exhausted. My dad— God, that fucking asshole.

“So,” I start, but my voice comes out rough. I clear my throat and try again. “I’m assuming you’re not just gonna tell me where I am, without any prompting?”

He’s completely still for a moment, and I’m immediately on my guard. Then, he gets up, long black hair sliding across his face. He’s coming towards me and I’m shuffling through all the cabinets in my head, looking for that hatred I should probably have for my dad. Trying to figure out where I left it. He walks around me, and the flat cold of a tiny blade brushes my wrist. The tension lets up in my arms when the binding snaps, and I bring my hands into my lap to rub the feeling back into them. The kid walks back around me, takes his seat. He’s looking at the window again.

“Can I take that as a sign of good faith, then?”

He glances at me out of the corner of his eye. Well, now that we’re doing around 60 down this road to friendship, I decide it’s as good a time as ever to keep going.

“You trust me not to run?”
He doesn’t even look at me when he says, “no trust. I’d catch you.”
Doesn’t matter that it’s probably true. “You don’t know that.” It’s quiet again. Then, “okay, so you didn’t untie me because you trust me. Why then?”
“Because you’re not a prisoner.”
I look around the room that I can’t leave, the peeling purple paint like a sunset cage. “Well you’re doing a real good job of convincing me otherwise.”
He’s looking at me directly now, and those stupid eyes are the most unreadable things I’ve ever seen. That static dark the Earth sits in.


“You’re not a prisoner, you’re a hostage.”
“That really clears things up.”
He looks at me, unimpressed. “You hold onto a prisoner because it hurts them. You hold on to a hostage because you need them.”


“And why do you need me?” I ask, like I didn’t have the answer as soon as those people threw me into the back of that car. And the kid’s looking back at me while the truth’s just glaring at the both of us, petulant. The truth’s a brat. Who knew?

Instead of answering me, the kid gets up and grabs the plasti chair. He moves into the corner right next to me, right across from the door. He’s frowning a little now, but I can’t really imagine what’s brought on the sudden mood change. I like to think I’ve been just as annoying from the beginning of this conversation as I have at its end.

He mutters, “your commentary” under his breath, and the door bangs open.

A guy in a green plaid shirt is standing in the doorway, and he looks like he should be walking his kindergartners to school, not aiming a two-tone 9mm at my head. And you know what the crazy thing is? I can tell you what color his eyes are, brown like packed earth after the hard rain lets up and not a moment before. I can tell you he didn’t shave that morning. I can tell you his hair’s wet with sweat, but not because he’s nervous about what he’s trying to do. No, he’s ready for that. The room’s hot, the room is so hot it’s like the thick air is sitting in my lap, pressing up against my chest like a person.

The barrel of a gun. Looking into that kid’s eyes is like staring down the barrel of a gun, when you know the bullet’s there, you know it, but you can’t see it for shit.

I don’t even get a full breath out before that kid’s tackling me to the floor, and the bullet meant for my head hits the wall behind me. Looks like my right shoulder’s getting no love today. It slams into the floor before my face can. My heart’s beating heavy inside my chest and one two three milliseconds later, my shoulder’s hurting so bad that I’m kind of wishing that guy hadn’t missed.

Pain’s trying to bring a hazy film over my eyes, but I still see it when the kid jumps up, fast as anything. Through the blur he’s pulling out his own gun, pulling the trigger before Green Plaid even has a chance to realize he missed me. I might not be able to see all that well, but that shot is the loudest thing in the world.

Damn. He really would have caught me.

The body hits the floor, and the kid walks up to it, looks down. It twitches, so he aims for the head and shoots again.

No hesitation. The kid didn’t wait a single second before— Oh my God. I’m lying on the concrete floor with my (probably broken, at least sprained) shoulder under me and I’m thinking oh my god. Green Plaid doesn’t move again. I’m staring at the soles of his loafers, and they remind me so fucking much of those stupid little race tracks Bryce and I used to play with when we were really little. I’m gonna cry. I’m gonna throw up. I’m gonna shatter.

He walks over to where I’m laying on my side. Kneels down, wraps my good arm around his neck and helps me to my feet, as careful as anything. When he rips a strip of fabric off his shirt to tie it around my eyes. Something’s rattling inside of me. I’m looking forward to the chance to not see anything at all for a little while, even though everything in front of me is cast in that blurriness that rides in with the pain. The murkiness I’m still telling myself aren’t tears waiting for me to let them through.

He leads me out of the room. The air outside’s probably warm at best, but after all that heat it’s gorgeously cold against my neck. I never knew the sound of crickets singing could make me feel so relieved.

We walk for days, months, years. Time stacks up on itself inside my head, entire bricks of it piled up so high I’m afraid it’s gonna tear through the sky, leave the Earth open and raw. We were walking on concrete and asphalt before, now we’re on soft dirt. Something like a leaf brushes up against my face. We stop, and I hear the kid take something out of his pocket. A little while later I hear him say,

“They found us.”

Some chattering on the other line fills in the nighttime quiet. Then the kid says, “Okay.”
He leans me up against a tree, on my good side. I can hear him crunching some dead leaves underfoot while he walks away from me. He’s not gonna leave me in the middle of the woods with a broken shoulder, is he? This isn’t any way to treat your hostages. I hear nothing, and then I hear a smashing, like a... is that a rock? I hear something like a rock hitting a... I guess that makes sense. When he’s done smashing the phone, I can hear him walking up to me again. There’s a reservoir pooling up inside my head. Oh fuck, it’s gonna happen. I can feel my eyes getting hot, and it scares the shit out of me

“Can you walk?”
His voice is too loud for the dark.
“As romantic as it was to have my arm draped around your neck, the answer’s yes.”
“I already knew you could talk,” he mutters. He grabs my good elbow and leads me from the tree.
“How’s your shoulder?”

“How would your shoulder be if you got tackled into cement?”
I’m half expecting him to lead me into a tree, just to spite me.
He breathes out hard and it sounds kind of like a chuckle. “Actually, I don’t think it ever healed quite right.”

I don’t know what to do with this, this thing that’s hanging between us that’s equal parts him and me. You’re not supposed to have anything in common with the people that hurt you. My dad’s face keeps coming up in front of my blindfold and I can’t blink him away.

We walk for a thousand years. When we stop again, the kid leans me up against another tree, and I hear a door creak open. Then he’s grabbing me, telling me to get down on my knees and bringing my good hand to the cold rung of a ladder. My shoulder pain’s still knocking hard at the door of me, so it takes me a little while to realize that we’re at an underground bunker.

“Sooo,” I say, fingers drumming on the metal rung, “you got a plan for getting me down there?”

“I do,” he starts off, slow, “but you’re not gonna like it.”

He’s right. I hate it. Moments later I’m on this kid’s back, uninjured arm wrapped around his neck for dear life while my other arm’s hanging against my side. I swear I can feel the whole thing throbbing, and the blood in my head falls into its rhythm. And then I can’t help it, I’m thinking of Ana, when she was really little. When she used to jump onto my back, and I used to run up and down the house with her tiny fists tight in the fabric of my shirt, her laughs hitting the tile underneath our feet, coming back up so loud the whole house sounded like her.

Our dad used to come see us every few weeks, back before mom took us and left. He used to stagger his visits, make sure he and his shipments were never in the state at the same time. When I was little, I used to think he was a private investigator, like Magnum. When Ana was little, I let her think it too. Sometimes the truth doesn’t come up to meet you. Sometimes it waits for you on the top shelf till you get big enough, tall enough, old enough to reach it. Bryce loves dad with that kind of sighted love that turns whatever it actually sees into the shit it wants to see. The man could blow up the space station on a whim and Bryce would tell you all about how NASA had it coming.

It’s kind of impressive how quickly the kid makes it to the ground with me on his back, but soon I’m down in the bunker, and he’s climbing back up the ladder to close the door. I’m standing in the dark until he steps out into the bunker again and takes off my blindfold.

“Guess I wasn’t missing out on much,” I say when I’m blinking against the blackness of the bunker.

He finds the light switch, and there’s a plastic card table with two rough metal chairs at the center of the room. There’s a little stove in the corner, right next to an old wooden dresser. I don’t notice that there’s a little fridge, too, until the kid’s walking towards it. I stumble over to one of the chairs before I can collapse. My eyesight’s better now, but with that little development comes all the shit that just happened in that purple room. It’s all sprinting down the hallways of my head now, coming up at me. I’m staring at the kid’s back while he’s kneeling down, scraping some ice from the sad little freezer inside the fridge. Where’d he put the gun? Bang, then the full wet sound of softness coming down into hardness. Could’ve been me, blood like paint on that cement. Would he cry for me? Could tears live inside a person like that?

The kid takes off his thin bomber jacket, and I can see the place on his shirt where my makeshift blindfold came from. He scoops some ice into his jacket, then turns back to me. His black black eyes are eating up the light, he’s his own singularity. I wish I could be infinitely dense like that, wish I could fall through the earth, sink through its core, cut this planet so deep it could never heal.

He hands me the ice pack he made, and I take it, hold it up against my shoulder. I must be more delirious with pain and shock than I thought, because before long I’m saying,

“I know you.”
He raises a brow. “Really?”
“I know kids like you. Guys like my dad... they love kids like you.”
“Guys like your dad...” he repeats.
“Yeah. You work for one, right? Wolf.”
It feels weird to say it. I knew it, had known it from the moment that big guy told me not to scream. Wolf is the only person who could ever be this bold, the only person batshit crazy enough to snatch one of Solomon’s kids, on their way to get some fro-yo. Someone should’ve told him that he’d gotten the wrong kid, though. That if he really wanted to get a rise out of my dad, don’t snatch Kit, snatch Bryce. Sure, with me, he’d be a little annoyed about having to pay the ransom, but with Bryce... with Bryce he would’ve razed the entire surface of this planet, Wolf and his assholes right along with it. He would’ve dared God to come down and see, if He dared.

He breathes out hard again, that chuckle. “Kids like me scare the shit out of you. It’s okay though. They scare the shit out of me too.” He slouches back into his chair, stares up at the ceiling. “I would’ve starved without guys like your dad.”

His voice is rigid, like it’s doing the twin work of trying to convince both himself and me.

I shift, bring the ice pack a little harder into my shoulder. “Kind of sounds like you wish you had.”

He brings his head down to look at me, and I don’t really know when his eyes stopped creeping me out. Now the sadness I see there makes my heart want to catch fire inside my chest, burn its way out my body until I can’t ever feel for somebody again like I feel for this long-haired kid with the girl’s face sitting right across from me.

“You know what it’s like to be hungry for two weeks straight? Give me the 9 mil to the head.”

That’s what does it. Breaks all the levees inside my head, makes the tears inside me swell up and surge until I feel like I could drown inside myself. I’m holding the ice pack to my shoulder and I feel the tears coming down my cheeks. I can’t even wipe them away because I’m holding the ice pack to my fucking shoulder. I feel the pain from my shoulder and the nausea from that day and the fear from that purple room and the sadness for this kid whirling up inside me, dissolving into my blood and my bones until my body’s made up of every shitty thing I’ve ever felt.

Over the sound of my heart cracking inside me I hear the kid say something. He says, softly,

“You’ve never been hungry.” And I know it’s not a question but I answer anyway. I shake my head. He doesn’t even sound bitter. This kid should be bitter. So, so angry. Why does it feel like I’m madder than he is?

Through my tears, I choke out, “it’s fucked up.”
He laughs. “You’re crying for me, Kit?”
I squeeze my eyes shut tight, press the ice pack into my shoulder until it hurts. I cry harder.