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Contemporary Drama Crime

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“Aaargh!”  He wasn’t careful tearing the duct tape from my mouth.  The pain of it was the point.  I wanted to curse him, to tell him to go fuck himself, but I was terrified.  No one ever plans to be abducted, so as much as you might think you’d be assertive in such a situation, you’re wrong.  Your brain moves straight to bargaining, every minute, every action, every choice, you’re hoping to assuage your captor, hoping to convince them to let you go.  It stings the ego, but you think of your wife, of your kids, and you tell yourself that capitulating to a madman is how this all ends with you going home.

His voice was soft, his accent midwestern.  He didn’t say anything on the ride here, but the way he said ‘van’ when he stabbed a pistol in my back and demanded that I ‘get in the fucking van,’ rang of Wisconsin or maybe Minnesota.  He definitely wasn’t Texan.  He was strong, too.  When he dragged me from the cargo compartment by my zip tied hands, he was able to steer me like a shopping cart.  I could tell we were outside, and when he finally pulled the black bag off my head, I knew exactly where he had taken us.  We were on the roof of the parking garage next to the children’s hospital.  Looking down from the seventh floor, Houston was marvelous.  I never much cared for the orange glow that rises from the factories on the waterfront, the dull fire infusing the bottoms of the misty gray clouds that float in off the water and mingle with the spew that always and forever billows from hundreds of towers and stacks.  But when the barrel of a gun is pressing on the bone at the base of your skull, you find beauty.  You try to make peace.  

“Look at it!” 

“At what?”

“At all that shit on the horizon!  The flaring towers, the pollution!  The murder of the Earth!”

At first I thought he wanted money.  Why else would he have taken me?  Back home my wife was getting a phone call from his cartel buddies demanding unmarked bills in a plain black briefcase.  But when he started ranting, I wondered if he wasn’t just a hippie who finally snapped.  A Sierra Club weekender who watched Taxi Driver too many times.  “OK, I’m looking!” I told him.

“All that, that’s you!  You do that!  Every day, with every stroke of your pen, you fill the air and the water with that shit!”

“I don’t!”

“You do!  Don’t fucking lie to me!  You do!”

“But I don’t!”

“Then who does?”

“Everyone, I guess.”  That pissed him off.  I spread the blame around, and he wasn’t having that.  He hit me on the side of the head with the butt of his pistol and I fell.  My scalp was hot and I knew it was bleeding.  He tucked the gun into his waistband and used both hands to yank me to my feet by my collars.  That’s when I finally saw his face.  

“That’s you?”  It was a weird thing to say, I’ll admit.  It threw him off too.  I guess I expected a more gruff kidnapper.  Based on the gravel and vitriol in his voice, I pictured Benicio Del Toro with face tattoos.  But I was wrong.  If anything, he was sad.  Thinning hair, wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, the five o’clock shadow of a run down high school math teacher slouching towards an unfunded retirement.

“What?” He released my collar.

“I just, I expected something else.”  

His eyes reflected the fire that danced on the horizon.  “Turn around!  Don’t look at me!  Look at the toxic mess that you shit out all over the world!”

And I did look.  Twenty-five miles of Houston coastline stretched away into the darkness, and buried in the night but for the red luster that hung over them, a slew of chemical plants and oil refineries including my own, Morgan Industrial.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes you do, Godammit!  You’re the fucking owner and CEO of Morgan!”

“I am, that’s true.  But I’m just a businessman.  My job is to make sure the company stays profitable, that’s all.”

“And you do that by manufacturing poison, and paying off the government so they won’t regulate it!”

“We make agricultural products!  That’s all.  We feed people!”  

He rapped me on the side of the head with the pistol again.  Not as hard as the first time.  “Do you know why I brought you here?”

“To this parking garage?”

“To the children’s hospital, yes.”

“No.  I have no idea.”

“Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor.”

“Atrazine has proven safe in…”  

This time he threw me on the ground.  My arms bound behind me, my shoulder popped out of its socket as I hit the concrete, so I let out a yell.  That’s what I get for interrupting a psychopath.

“Atrazine causes cancer.  It kills children.  It killed my child.”

 He kicked me in the ribs and I saw his shoes.  New Balances.  Total dad shoes.  I wanted to laugh, not at his pain, but because I understood.  Because it all made sense now.

“What was his name?”  

The kicking stopped.  He was panting.  He didn’t have the cardio for real assault and battery.  “Caroline.  Her name was Caroline.”

“Caroline,” I wheezed.  Blood leaked from the side of my head and dripped onto the concrete in front of my eyes.  I raised up until I was sitting against the short brick wall.  He didn’t stop me.  “How old was she?”

“She was seven.  A perfect little seven.  Second grade.  A soccer player and an artist.  She was everything in the world to me.  Ancient starlight wrapped in the most vulnerable flesh.  A heart too good and pure to live among us.”  He spoke to the night, his words a prayer, a lamentation, a bouquet of confusion and hatred and grief, he was pleading with God to forgive him this trespass while making sure I knew that he wasn’t a madman at all, but in fact, the most sane man on the planet.  What father wouldn’t kill for his child?  When my first was born, a nuclear bomb was planted in the nucleus of every cell in my body, weapons of mass destruction that, should something bad ever happen to my little girl, could be released without any consideration of consequence or thereafter.  Me and this man, we were the same.

“I’ve got two kids,” I said.  “Fallon and Timothy.”  It hurt to talk.  Those dad shoes bruised my ribs, but I pushed through, hoping to tear down the idol of myself that he constructed in his mind.  “To you, I’m a faceless devil.  An expensive suit hiding goat legs and a serpent's tail.  Soulless, guided only by money.  To them, I’m piggyback rides and blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings.  The brave knight who checks for monsters in closets and under beds.  To them, I’m just Dad.  Like you.”

“No!”  His anger called him back.  He gripped the pistol with two hands and the business end was a millimeter from my eye.  “You don’t get to do that!  You don’t get to invoke them!  Yours are alive!  You can afford to keep yours far from the hell that you make!  People like you have all the power, all the money, and you use it to build a bubble that you get to hide in!  Yours will never lose all their hair and all their weight!  Yours won’t go to chemo, but to Harvard, so you can pass them the baton.  On and on it will go, yours killing ours, yours killing ours, and all the while the big checks will keep coming in, the stock will keep going up, and no one will ever do anything about it!  Well tonight, I’m doing something about it!  I can’t stop you all, but I can stop you!”

“And then what?”

“A beginning is made.”

“I’m gone and Morgan closes up shop?  The assembly line turns off and our fifteen-thousand employees go home, to do what exactly?”

“Something else.”

“Oh, I know, they’ll go till the Earth maybe.  They’ll take to the fields and spread manure by hand, and then all summer long they’ll pick grasshoppers off of crops one by one.”

“In the best of all worlds, maybe.  Maybe that’s exactly what they’ll do.”

“Because Bayer and Dow and all the rest will power down too, right?”

“If enough parents of enough dead children see to it.”

“And then Exxon and BP.  Nestle, Cargill, Apple and hundreds of companies whose names you don’t even know, who make the paints and the lubricants and the plastics and the computer chips and every material or component that has ever kept you warm and fed and alive?  Look out there!  Twenty-five miles of industry, and only one of those plants is mine.  And that’s just Houston.  It’s a big planet, and the EPA doesn’t reach that far.  If you want to really see hell, you’re not even on the right continent.”

“You’re evading responsibility.”

“So are you.”  

“You’ve made millions holding the reins.  I’ve only ever been a passenger, a flea on the beast’s back.”

“A mighty fat flea.  Fat with blood.  I’m sorry about Caroline.  I truly am.  But are you sorry about the billion children around the world just like her?  The children who never got to see seven?”

“I am!  And I will atone for my sins.  That’s exactly why we’re here right now.  I think you misunderstand my intentions, Mr. Morgan.  Get up.”  I couldn’t stand without his help.  “Get up!” he yelled.

“I can’t!  I can’t stand with my hands tied behind my back!”

He crouched and grabbed my bicep, pulling me to my feet.  Standing again, the night air was able to find my nose, bringing me the sea salt and too many parts per million of benzene, toluene, and whatever other magical molecular constructions were riding the summer breeze like rabid genies, high on freedom, intent on never returning to their magic lamps.  

“Look at it,” he said again, this time his words having to hurdle a lump in his throat.  “Now tell me, what are you going to do on Monday?”

I didn’t understand.  What answer did he want?  What answer kept that bullet in the chamber and my brain safely seated inside my head?  “I…I don’t know what you mean.”

He spaced out his words.  “What…are you…going to do…on Monday?”

I hazard a guess.  “Quit my job?”   

“No!”  I winced when he screamed, expecting the handgun to collide with my already aching skull.  When it didn’t, I relaxed my shoulders and looked at him.  His fist was balled at his forehead as if my answer had plunged an invisible knife into his frontal lobe and he was now desperate to pull it free.  “I told you!” he yelled.  “You are the powerful!  You can’t quit!  Not now!  Not now that you have been made to see.”  With the gun he pointed to the children’s hospital.  “Right there, in that building, there is a whole oncology wing full of kids.  Fathom that!  For one moment, fathom that!  Children’s oncology.  That is your legacy!  You can tell yourself you create jobs, and you feed the world, but I will not let you view reality with only one of your eyes!  You cannot claim the rain and ignore the flood.  Tonight you will say aloud the words that across your life, so many applauding shareholders have kept you from having to hear; that you fertilize the soil with the ground up bones of babies!”

Sirens howled on the streets below.  When he first ordered me into the work van at gunpoint, I figured one of the witnesses had to have called the police.  Blind and muzzled, I cried with my cheekbone pressed into the hard rubber floor as each pothole jabbed my face like a bantamweight, the whole time pleading that someone had done the right thing, that someone had called for help, that someone was coming to save me.  Now he was crying.  My captor, the forlorn father, would be angel to all the unborn.  The sirens hit the walls of the lower levels of the parking garage like a racquetball, bouncing and echoing against themselves as tires squealed through corners, spiraling upward. 

He had the gun in my face again.  Staring into the dark abyss of the barrel, I couldn’t help but squint.  “On Monday, Mr. Morgan, you’re going to change everything.  Everything.”

The sirens threw his last word to the ground.  Beat it to a pulp.  Red and blue light crossed swords behind him as he stood there cast in silhouette.   With the gun at his own temple, he looked like a soldier standing at attention, saluting me farewell.  The blast threw his body to the side and left me temporarily deaf.  Black clad police were pinning me against the wall with white light from the ends of their rifles.  My pupils wrenched down to pinholes, and there without picture or sound I found myself floating in a bright static of nothing, held aloft by two simple words.  I knew men were screaming, and I knew I was safe in their swarming and fury, but they rang in my ears, those words.  They ring now.  Over coffee and toast.  Over the scrape of my shaving razor in the morning and the rustle of my comforter at night.  Through board meetings on the top floor and eighteen year old scotch at the private club, I hear him saying it, singing it, chanting it, but always whispering it the loudest when I hold my children, when I watch them play, when I kiss their tender foreheads as their lavender eyelids flutter with their dreaming.  

“Change everything.”

February 04, 2022 16:51

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3 comments

Shea West
05:29 Feb 15, 2022

I enjoyed the dialogue between the two. The way the victim really pushed back against his captor. The way he alluded to his children to try to get the captor to empathize with him. I liked that he was so focused on that mantra of changing everything, that we the reader might actually believe him.

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John F. Duffy
16:54 Feb 15, 2022

Thanks Shea (Is that your preferred moniker?).

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Shea West
17:05 Feb 15, 2022

Thanks for asking, I'm fine with either. Just don't call me Chelsea or Crochet and we'll be good ;)

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