"Come with us,” two burly men in gray suits say, grabbing you by the arm and handcuffing you. “You know what you did.”
But you have no idea.
In fact, this staggering absence of an idea is so profound that your bound hands continue to clutch the Sainsbury’s carrier bag. They’re bound in front, not behind, thank goodness. At this point, you are quite certain that you will make the walk home at quarter past eleven in the unnerving stillness that is the suburbs at this hour. At this point, life is as it should be, and you will meet any suggestions to the otherwise with defiance.
It takes the clap of a car door and the groggy spluttering of an engine to hammer the truth home. The click of several locks takes care of a few more truths.
“C’mon, mate,” urges the man whose bulk pins you to the window, “don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
“I reckon he’s scared shitless,” says his companion in the driver’s seat as he maneuvers the vehicle out of the driveway.
This isn’t the way to my flat, you think, numbly, to the sound of laughter. You pull the carrier bag onto your lap and hold it close. I’m strong and sturdy are the words that flash up from the cartoon graphic of an orange elephant. You read these words every time you unhook the bag from the door of your kitchen before you go grocery shopping, but only now, in these dire straits, do you process them. Oh, I get it. This bag is supposed to last a while, just like an elephant. You can’t help but draw a few physical comparisons to your captors.
Captors. That’s not a pill you’re in any mood to swallow. You’re getting bloody kidnapped and there’s nothing you—an adult, not a kid at all, so the term shouldn’t even apply—can do about it, mate!
You certainly feel like a kid, as much as your ego reels from the blow of admitting it. One of these men could probably off you with his thumb, just like that sous chef in that Pixar film about rats that Mia loves so much.
“You… you’re not the fuzz, are you?” you stammer into the cigarette-tinged stuffiness of it all. A part of you clings to the hope that they just forgot to put on their uniforms, that there’s a comfortingly tangible reason for the cuffs biting into your wrists.
“And why wouldn’t we be, eh?” asks the driver as houses streak past the window like ghouls.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. And even if I did, which I didn’t, you’d tell me what it was before arresting me. That’s how it works, right?”
“Maybe we’re really shit cops,” says the man next to you.
“Can’t be all that shit if we nabbed our guy,” says the driver.
“Could you at least tell me why I’m here?” you ask. Your palms sweat, your head reels, and something red and thorny starts to bloom in the pit of your stomach. You need answers to staunch the wrongness of it all.
The driver swivels his bulk to face you, one nonchalant hand taking care of the wheel. “You bloody know what you bloody did, mate.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then think it over. It’ll come to you, I promise.” With a cheeky grin, he’s back on the road.
As the night whisks you further and further away from normalcy, you let things settle. A chinese knot, red as blood, dances above the dashboard. A bobblehead of the Queen does a lonely dance amid packets of Sterling and empty wrappers. You can’t help but note the discrepancy between the filth in their car and the polish on their suits. Between what’s happening to you and what ought to be happening.
23:41 are the glowing digits under the dashboard. You could be wiping your shoes on your welcome mat right now. You could be savoring Mia’s lingering perfume as you shrug off your jacket. You ought to call her, but your nerves won’t let you. Not when the driver’s eagle eyes lock onto you from the rearview mirror every time your hands inch to your pocket.
Your mind wanders in the silence, the way it does when you’re done with work an hour early at the office and you don’t dare ask for your boss’ permission to go home because of the small-but-deadly chance that he’ll decline and give you some extra work instead. Thoughts stream by with the hum of the engine, flashes of things that range from being unethical to mildly-illegal to a smoothie of both. Will it really come to you? You’ve been fined for speeding a few times, but you’ve sorted those out. Sometimes you park in handicap and pretend to be mute if anyone is nosy enough to give a damn. The worst thing that you’ve done, you think, is run over the neighbor’s chihuahua. You thought the damn thing was a rat, and you floored it because a rat as big as that isn’t the warm welcome you need going home after an evening at the pub. Maybe you’d have seen the leash, or your neighbor yanking at the other end, if you weren’t so out of it.
“I reckon that’s his thinking face,” muses the man next to you.
The driver’s eyes sparkle in the rearview mirror. “Take your time, mate. You’ll get there.”
It’s easy to ignore them when you’re so wrapped up in speculation. What if this is to do with something in the distant, distant past? Something long-forgotten, or something you figured was long-forgotten until someone from the recesses of your memory decided that revenge really is a dish best served cold. You sift through your time at uni, which you haven’t done in a while because life is just fine and there’s no reason to look anywhere but forward. You were a first-year at a Wetherspoons when you spilt your Guinness onto a girl’s top, right into the depths of her cleavage. Her boyfriend was a third-year when he clobbered you into oblivion without spilling a single drop of his drink. To this day, you’re sure he was drunk enough to kill you, and that he certainly would have had Jack not been there.
You recall the day you turned in your dissertation a few hours late, and the way your professor shook his head when you came begging for even a morsel of pity-induced lenience. You were, quite fucking literally, on your knees that day; you remember how the hardwood floor of his office left them red and raw. In the end, it was Jack that helped you forge the bullshit-stained medical letter that saved your arse. That professor never made eye contact with you ever again. Still, he doesn’t seem like the sort to let old wounds fester.
God bless you, Jack, for sticking with me through thick and thin. He even landed you the decent office job you have now, and you’re still thinking of a way to repay him. A sliver of you wonders if he’ll be the one to get you out of this mess.
“What’s in there, anyway?” asks the man next to you.
“Nothing,” you reply, clutching the carrier bag closer.
“C’mon, let’s have a look. I’m bored out of my wits here.”
“We’re almost there,” announces the driver.
“We fucking better be.”
As the car gets jostled about in a narrow side street, your heart races. You can’t help but imagine the things that these two might do to you when almost there becomes there. Maybe you haven’t done anything wrong after all, and that was all just a pretext to drive you someplace secluded. You’ve become acquainted with kidnappings on TV, mouthed silent prayers whenever a picture of the victim would appear on the screen, but you figured that was a world that would never touch you. Is Jack going to flip to BBC a few days from now only to find your silly face staring back at him? You’re never going to make it up to him if you let things end like this.
It never occurs to you to try the windows until now. You hear a scoff when the switch doesn’t do a damn thing.
Then you start slamming your bound fists into window. Slowly at first, until cold desperation makes the cuffs hammer out a metal tune against the glass.
“Oi.” You’re jerked away like a ragdoll. A warm, fleshy brutishness breathes down on you, malice flickering in his beady eyes. Then something cold and sharp presses against your cheek. “Cut that out, yeah? Or I’ll bleed you like a stuck pig.”
A clump of saliva flees down your throat. You nod, and the man releases your collar. Better a kidnapping than a good ol’ fashioned shanking.
23:53 is the last thing the clock flashes at you before the car pulls into a driveway and fades to a standstill. “Out you go,” commands the man as he pushes the door on your side open and prods you out. You don’t hesitate. Not when his knife winks at you in the dim light of a streetlamp.
You’ve come out in front of a square building that lurks in the near-midnight gloom like a patient monster. Some kind of abandoned warehouse, you think, like the ones in movies. A gangly fence topped with razor wire keeps the rest of the world out. Your knees shiver at the mouth of the building as the possibilities rattle inside your skull. Are these two going to beat you? Bugger you senseless? Tie you to a chair and cut off your ears while dancing to the tune of “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel?
The men grab you, one firm hand on each side, and march you into the dark. You flinch when the warehouse door screams shut somewhere behind. Your grip on the carrier bag tightens. The orange elephant is your only friend, and he needs the reassurance.
Your footsteps ring in the gloom. Your breaths rattle in your chest, and you think you can taste the fear bubbling up your throat. You stifle one of your panic-gags.
A crimson light flickers in the distance. The two men herd you towards it, closer and closer, like an unwilling moth to the flame that will burn it to a crisp.
You’re yanked to a stop five paces away from the source of the light: a glowstick, of all things, resting on a metal table with two chairs. You must be seeing things, because in front of you is a serene figure, calm and collected and looking like a sliver of the surrounding darkness that decided to detach itself and plop down onto the seat facing your way. A man that will forever be more handsome than you.
“Bloody hell,” you breathe into the half-light. “Jack?”
“Harry.” One word, and it cleaves right through your soul. “Please, take a seat.”
You are guilt-ridden as soon as your arse hits the chair. A wet toddler being told off, a puppy that took a shit on the carpet, that’s what a simple gesture has reduced you to. One of the guards removes the cuffs, at least, before the both of them take their positions behind you. As if Jack’s presence alone isn’t enough to make your stomach contort like a yoga instructor.
Because the fact that he’s here can only mean one thing. And it hurts, it hurts like a bloody arsehole to finally realize what this is all about. No amount of rubbing your chafed wrists will stifle the pain.
“Jack, listen,” you stammer as you rest the carrier bag on the table. “I… oh, Jesus, I don’t even know where to begin, I—”
Something grim trickles across Jack’s face, and suddenly—suddenly, because you don’t know how on earth he managed to get his hands on that—you’re staring down the barrel of a pistol. You flinch, and a burly hand pins you to the chair.
“D’you know what day it is?” asks Jack with an offhandedness that sends a chill scurrying down your spine. “Harry? I said, d’you know what day it is?”
Jack leans back in his chair and sets the gun down. He smirks. Which turns into a chuckle. And then he’s throwing his head back and his laughter is echoing through the darkness of the warehouse. The two burly men join the cacophony, and the only thing you are powerful enough to do is shrink further into the chair.
“Really, Harry?” says Jack as he flicks away a tear. “You really don’t know what day it is?”
You sit there, too numb to even shake your head.
The pistol comes down again, and you tense. “Maybe this’ll jog your memory, eh? C’mon. What day is it?”
Your toes curl in their own sweat. You don’t want this night to turn into a Guy Ritchie film. Though the fact that you don’t know what day it is might just get you a free ticket to one.
But. You do know what you did.
“I’ll count to three,” says Jack.
“Please, Jack, just… just let me—”
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, I’ll leave her alone, okay? I promise, I fucking promise to leave her alone.”
Jack’s eyebrow rises. “Two…”
Panic distills your voice into an intense whisper. “Please, Jack, I’m fucking begging you here. I’ll do anything. I’ll even turn myself in, and Mia won’t see me ever again.”
“Three. Wait, what?”
Light. Light everywhere, flooding your senses even as you raise your palms to ward off the glow.
Two words are chanted out as you sit there defenseless: “Happy birthday!”
A colorful band of people—not just people, but people you know, Emily from work, Isabella who pours you drinks at the pub every Thursday evening, Noah who’s usually there to share those drinks with you, and many more—stand under a banner behind Jack where those two words sit in all their glittering vibrance. Your incomprehension melts as you scan the happiness on everyone’s faces and reconcile with the fact that Jack hasn’t filled you with lead. No, he sits there looking like he’s seen a ghost, and why wouldn’t he? Your panic-stricken excuse for a brain decided to divulge something that was never meant to see the light of day.
Everyone starts singing, and Emily even hobbles over with a cake brimming with candles (Christ, you’re not that old, are you?), but Jack decapitates the mood as quickly as it appears. “Shut up. For god’s sake, everyone shut up.”
Everyone shuts up.
“Jack?” says Emily as she hovers uncertainly by him. “Is everything alright?”
“No, it’s not.” Jack runs his hands over his face as he gulps down a breath. His eyes are as cold and sharp as icicles when they finally connect with yours. “Harry. You’re shagging my daughter, aren’t you?”
It’s loud enough for… well. For your life to never be the same again. There’s no denying what you and Mia are. The gasps are there to make sure you know what you’re doing is wrong, and detestable, and as intolerable as intolerable gets.
Jack does it again—runs his palms across his face, and when he’s done there’s something in his eyes, a blend of pain and anger and something that might be a few straws away from madness. “Harry.” His voice is soft and measured. It hurts anyway. “None of this was real. It was a setup. A… a prank, goddammit. I just wanted to fuck with you on your birthday. That’s what day it is, Harry. It’s your bloody birthday!” He gestures to the burly men behind you, who look just as disturbed as he does. “They were never going to shank you, for god’s sake. Knife’s not even real. Neither is this.” He holds up the pistol and squirts water at you. It runs down your cheek.
A few people come up to console Jack. He breathes the heaviest of sighs. “So, all those times I asked you to house-sit for me…”
You nod. Can you even deny anything at this stage?
“Show me your phone.”
You blink at your friend.
“I have to see your messages.”
You do as he says. You even cough up the passcode—one-three-oh-six, Mia’s birthday. Jack is quick to home in on… well, on everything.
“She’s at your flat right now,” he says numbly. “She told me she was staying over at a friend’s for a school project.”
You nod. You somehow endured those vibrations for the entire care ride.
One of her texts undoubtedly leads Jack to dump out the contents of your carrier bag. Out rolls a bottle of Prosecco, soon to be joined by a few packets of Durex Extra Safe, because better safe than sorry. What can you say? It’s movie night, and movies are only half of the entertainment. That’s when Emily faints and the floor is the lucky bastard that gets to eat the cake.
Jack’s gaze cuts into your soul when he’s done rifling through your privacy. You’ve never seen him on the verge of tears before. “She’s thirteen, Harry. Thirteen.”
You swallow. “I know.”
The next day, things unfold the way you expect them to.
"Come with us,” two burly men in reflective jackets and black helmets say, grabbing you by the arm and handcuffing you. “You know what you did.”
And you do. You know all too well.