The Value Of Time / El Valor Del Tiempo

Submitted into Contest #154 in response to: Start your story with someone saying, “We’re running out of time.”... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction

Later on it was the whole family shouting, “We’re running out of time!” but at the beginning it was simply Uncle Julian not coming home one night. The next morning at 10am, the phone rang. 


“We have your Uncle. If you want him alive, don’t contact the police. We will call again in a few days.” And then just like in the TV shows they hung up. The caller had an accent from the Amazon provinces south of the capital, where the FARC has their strongholds.


Many sleepless nights later, the phone rang again.


“Your Uncle misses his wife, and Martica and Paulo and Andrés. You are a rich family, we have agreed with your Uncle Julian that a donation of $10 million dollars will help our cause to liberate the nation and then he can come home. Have the money ready on Monday.”


Our extended family had been staying in our home, waiting for the call from the kidnappers. In Colombia, they usually call the extended family. The immediate family is too shaken up to function and make the payments to get their partners or children returned. The FARC being Marxist communists, they usually abducted the head of the household, the wealth holder. The family had me answer the phone, they thought it was better to have someone young talk to them.


Aunty Paula started shrieking, “What are they thinking, 10 million?”


We were a well-to-do family in Colombia, but that is different from being wealthy in a place like Miami or New York. Someone like us might be able to put together a few thousands of dollars. Even for someone like my wealthy uncle, who owned a chain of Mazda car dealerships, a million dollars was unimaginable.


Our family sat in silence. I suppose we were all contemplating the loss of our Uncle as we couldn’t hope to meet their ransom demand. We agreed to gather again the next evening and discuss how much money we could pay.


I went to my classes at the Uni del Rosario as usual and tried not to think about my Uncle. My papa, Andrés, said he would speak to other people at his work who were familiar with kidnappings. The FARC had been taking normal people, not even the wealthy. Almost anyone with an office job could be taken. It has been going on for a few years. Most of the time people in Bogotá just didn’t talk about it.


At dinner we ate Aunty’s Pollo stew and talked about how delicious it was. My mother had prepared a Sancocho soup. We ate and talked quietly. When anyone mentioned anything about Uncle Julian a hush fell over our gathering. He was the center of our extended family, generous and full of warmth and good humor. After mother took the dishes away, Papa brought up what he had found out that day.


“My colleagues said if we want Julian back, we need to hire a consultant. I’ve made a few calls and found someone who has brought several people home. His name is Nicolas Pérez.”


My brother turned red. “He brought people home?” So Nicolas is one of them?”


“No, I don’t think he’s one of them, But how can we get Julian home if we don’t have someone who can talk to them?”


My brother silently walked out of the room and went upstairs. Papa being the most business minded person, and Julian’s brother, no one could really oppose his idea. 


The next day in the early afternoon, Nicolas Pérez arrived at our house. We fed him snacks, he drank coffee, we talked endlessly about where we grew up and what parts of Colombia we have been to. Papa asked about all Nicholas’s relatives. He obviously came from a more rough and tumble part of the city than we did, but he talked in a very business like manner.


“I want to get your brother back. The fee for my services is 20,000 US dollars. I know that is a lot but the FARC has killed people in my position. If you do what I tell you to do, I’m confident we will get your brother home.”


Papa looked unhappy, but he nodded and agreed. After all, he had heard that Nicolas has brought people back for others who worked with him at his bookkeeping firm.


The next day Nicolas Pérez gave us our first instructions. 


“This is going to be a long process. You must know that you cannot get your Uncle back tomorrow or next week, or the week after that. No matter how much you pay, they will want more. They will never stop asking for more.”


“Then it’s impossible! Fucking revolutionaries.” Papa rarely got angry, today was an exception.


“What you need to do now, what we all need to do as a family, is to convince the FARC that you couldn't care less about Julian.”


“But I do care,” Papa said.


“I know. But convincing them you don’t care if they kill him in the jungle, is going to decrease his value and help his chance of coming home and surviving this alive.”


Papa looked down and thought about this.


Nicolas continued, “Pinchao has been held for 5 years now.” Pinchao was a famous hostage at the time. After he saw we were ready to agree, Nicolas said, “Now what you need to do, is to look back at your every resentment, Julian’s every failing, build them up in your mind until you feel you hate Julian too. When they call you, you MUST tell them Julian is a piece of shit, and they should just leave you alone and not call again.”


**


The next week on Monday the kidnappers called, “Do you have our money? 10 million?”


Papa had answered. He said Uncle Julian’s car dealership was losing money, the whole business was insolvent. But because he was his brother he would pay them 10,000 out of his own pocket to fix this. The kidnapper on the phone ranted and shouted death threats, but Papa stayed calm until they hung up.


Nicolas Perez shook his head. “Damn! Why did you say you would pay them? Why did you do that?” he shouted. His anger made me feel for the first time Nicolas truly wanted to free our Uncle.


Nicolas stayed at our house most days when he didn’t have other business to handle. 


“It’s hard, but the next time they call, this...needs to come from his Wife,” Nicolas said while looking at our Aunty Carina.


A few days later the phone rang, Aunty Carina had tears in her eyes, she had worked on her story with Nicolas.


Aunt Carina said into the phone, “We thought about it, but now I don’t want that piece of horse ass back here. He treated me badly, hit me. With him gone, I get to be with my true love, Angelo from university. Go and tell him if you like. Now fuck off you countryside hicks,” Aunty said and hung up the phone without waiting for a reply. 


I hugged Aunty Carina and reassured her this was the right thing to do and we needed to trust Nicolas.


A week later they called again. They said Uncle Julian was a pain in the ass and they wanted to get rid of him. How about 1 million dollars?


Over the next several months, every family member got their chance on the phone to tell the kidnappers how awful Julian was. We brought up other neighbors and relatives, how they hated Julian as well. Old episodes from years ago. We said the FARC would do everyone a favor to get rid of him in the jungle or turn him into a farmer or a communist, out there like they were.


Of course, life in Bogotá must be very different from life in the tropical village they held Julian in down by the Amazon. We are the descendants of the Spanish and Bogotá has the best education in South America. We even speak Spanish better than most people do in Spain.


The back and forth game of our insults and their lower ransom demands continued for about 6 months, until they tried something different.


Aunty Carina screamed. We ran to the kitchen. She had just opened a package that arrived in the mail and there was something bloody wrapped up in plastic. Papa opened it and said it was a finger.


“That doesn’t look like his finger,” Aunty Carina sobbed.


“It's the right color,” Papa said.


“It can’t be his.”


These telephone calls had started to feel like a game with Uncle Julian away for so long. Now the reality of the situation sank back into us again.


The next day they called.


“How much can you pay us?”


“50,000,” Papa said.


“Fuck! Ok. GIve the money to Nicholas. He knows how to transfer it to us.”


Papa went to the bank and then gave the money to Nicholas. We didn’t know how they knew Nicholas’s name. They must have been watching us. Many of them work as drives and laborers in Bogotá, even our helpers might be talking to them.


Nicolas didn’t tell us how, but somehow he moved the money to the FARC, probably through someone sympathetic to the FARC in Bogotá. In Bogota, you could never fully tell who supported them and who didn’t.


The kidnappers stopped calling.


Two weeks later the police called. Uncle Julian had been found dumped on the side of the road in the Southern outskirts of Bogotá. He was pallid and gaunt, but alive. He was not missing any fingers or been physically harmed. Perhaps they had morals, or perhaps that would just be bad for business.


When Papa returned home with Uncle, we were overjoyed to see him. Julian was sullen and didn’t talk much.


Later we learned his captors, being villagers from the countryside and jealous of Julian’s status as a wealthy businessman in Bogotá, had tormented him with the words we said. For years, I was filled with sadness for thinking of the endless hours Uncle Julian was handcuffed to a wall with only the things we said to think about.


After that he did his daily work, managed with the minimum amount of courtesy, to get through life and run his business but somehow his spark for life was gone. At family dinners he would eat quietly. Sometimes he would hold my hand. Outside, he never went anywhere without a pistol being within hands reach.


A few years after Uncle had returned, I finished my education and immigrated to America to start a new life. Colombia is different now, the FARC have made a peace deal. But the memories of what could happen in my country never fade.

July 13, 2022 06:23

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25 comments

08:06 Jul 13, 2022

A true story told to me many years ago by a family friend who grew up in Bogota before she immigrated to the US. Any comments about points that are not clear or on Latin American cultural details that could be improved would be very helpful.

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Katy Borobia
13:22 Jul 16, 2022

This is an excellent story! I thought it was funny although very sobering. The descriptions of Latin America are very accurate. I especially liked the line "We even speak Spanish better than most people do in Spain" - the rivalry between every Latin American country is exactly like that! Thank you for sharing, and good luck in the contest.

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21:11 Jul 16, 2022

Thx! happy to hear I captured the details correctly, and you found it interesting.

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Tommy Goround
19:32 Jul 16, 2022

Don't you love the plot? It is really good. He didn't screw it up in the telling. I think he added to it. Thoughts: storytelling and writing are two different crafts.

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Tommy Goround
08:03 Jul 13, 2022

Notes while reading... Everything is working so far except one oddball. I really hated having to scroll down and make a note: it seems like the narrator is the head of the family or the outer family and then later you say it is Julius.... You suck. This story has heart and humor and why didn't you post it last week in the contest so that we did not have to compete with you.... You and the stupid beautiful story. You cannot win a Nobel prize off of a short story, I checked. But if you could the king of Sweden and the Ghost of the dead guy...

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15:44 Jul 31, 2022

Although it's sad that Julian suffers, the story is likeable. It is well knit and appreciable.

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00:27 Aug 01, 2022

Thx! happy you found it an interesting story Pradeepa.

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Craig Westmore
18:58 Jul 26, 2022

Great story this week, Scott. The beginning pulled me in right away. The objective of the story is very clear: get back uncle Julian no matter what it takes. Which makes for a bittersweet ending when the sacrifice is his family's love and trust put in doubt while he was captive. I have a couple suggestions which aren't absolutely necessary. Try to give the story more flavor. Describe what goes into Sancocho soup. Give an extra sentence explaining why Pinchao was a famous kidnapping victim. When Nicolas Pérez arrives, describe his appearanc...

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23:58 Jul 26, 2022

Those are great suggestions, Craig. Someone else just mentioned I should go further with visual descriptions, I read writing advice to leave it up to the mind of the reader but perhaps I've taken that too far. I'm thinking of rewriting this based on a true story-story for submitting elsewhere and will checkin when I have a new draft. Good to hear you are on the road to recovery over there btw.

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14:40 Jul 24, 2022

Scary that people live in places like this. Sorry about the uncle having such a sad life after coming back. I guess no one could convince him why they had to do it that way and that they really didn't mean all of those things. The story has a good flow and the action feels well paced. I don't know anything about the particulars of the country but maybe a bit of description of the environment to build the world out a little bit would be good. I could imagine the family on the phone and around the table but I had no visual reference in my he...

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23:22 Jul 24, 2022

Thx so much Jeannette, That is very helpful to know the story could use some more visual details. Yes, I had watched writing advice to not to over describe things but I think I took it too far. Especially an exotic location could use a few interesting cues as to what everything looks like. I'll remember that in the future, thanks for commentating, and happy you generally enjoyed the story. Its been over ten years now, I'm guessing the Uncle eventually recovered his energy, my friends had visited her family in Bogota right after this happene...

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13:50 Jul 25, 2022

Glad they were able to visit. What's neat about Reedsy is the advice and comments. When people say what worked and didn't work for them as a reader helps so much. I know it has for me.

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Chris Campbell
04:55 Jul 19, 2022

Great story, Scott. What a gamble to make with someone's life. I have a Venezuelan friend that had the same thing happen to his father. Eventually, he moved to the USA then to Australia. Well told!

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07:52 Jul 19, 2022

Thx Chris! interesting to hear the same thing happened to your friend in Venezuela. It seems one needs to always be careful in that part of the world.

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Hi Scott. I was traveling this last week since Wednesday, and didn't have internet access most of the time. I've just gotten time to critique this now. These are the things I've noticed right away: My Mom, whose Father came from Mexico, says that if your first language is Spanish, even if you learn English, you usually say "Tío", not "Uncle", when you are with Spanish-speaking family, even if they are otherwise speaking English. [And then just like in the TV shows they hung up.] I would add a comma. {And then just like in the TV shows,...

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00:43 Jul 17, 2022

Thanks guadalupe for your insights as usual. The story has been accepted now, and luckily has made the recommended list. “Hideouts” indeed would have been a better description from what i was told as well as your other points.

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I'm glad it was accepted. My Mom read your story and was deeply moved in a very sad way. She had to think about why it made her feel so sad. She finally said, "Some things are worse than death. They took that family's wealth in more ways than one. They destroyed the head of the family." Her heart felt crushed for them. She says, "Well done." I have not heard of the recommended list. What is it?

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03:34 Jul 17, 2022

If you click on a tag for your story such as “historical fiction” etc it will show the reedsy recommended stories in that genre below the winners. Im moved that my telling of one persons story had such an impact. Its good this happened a long time ago, i hope they have moved past it somehow.

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Tommy Goround
19:31 Jul 16, 2022

Something is wrong. More people should read this story and see how brilliant it is. You can have your uncle back but he comes back strange. So are you really getting your uncle back if he loses his soul?

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Kendall Defoe
02:08 Jul 16, 2022

Well, you got me with this one (CSI:Reedsy?) Seriously, these sorts of things happen all the time, and I think that we do not want to admit as much.

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Chandler Wilson
04:43 Jul 14, 2022

Entertaining! Good story. Thanks for sharing.

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05:04 Jul 14, 2022

Thanks for reading Chandler;)

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Mike Panasitti
03:24 Jul 14, 2022

Sometimes the stories that aren't made up are more riveting than those that are merely figments of the imagination. This story, although non-fiction, contains elements of the magical realism found in the writings of Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The effect the politically-motivated ransoming has on Julian is truly lamentable. I hope his niece has found some kind of closure to the episode in the United States.

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03:40 Jul 14, 2022

Thanks for reading Mike. yes, she's doing fine now. She and her american husband told this to me after a long dinner as a humorous story.. Perhaps humor is how many people accept things that are truly tragic. I can't imagine what he went through as a hostage but apparently this happened to thousands of normal middle class families there in the 90s and 00s. Thankfully it appears most political parties made a peace deal about ten years ago and I hope things like this have stopped happening.

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Graham Kinross
16:37 Aug 08, 2022

This is so well told, great story.

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