The handcuffs tear into the skin on Jack’s wrists. The new-car smell of the SUV’s interior makes him feel nauseous. He cowers in the back seat. One goon sits to his left, a stocky white guy with short dark hair. The other two sit in front, including the one with the earring. They’re all wearing the same dark suits. They’re relaxed, like they do this kind of thing all the time.
It seems to Jack like there were a lot more of these guys chasing him before. He’s surprised to discover there are only three of them.
His mind gets ahead of itself. He was in shock at first, fueled by his panic to act. Now that he’s still, all of his nervous energy is roiling his thoughts. He second-guesses every thought before he thinks it through. Then he third-guesses it. Then he second-guesses his third-guesses.
He spins out scenarios, one after the other, none of them good. They’re spiraling inside his head. He’s being kidnapped. He’s being arrested. He’s going to get beaten up. Murdered.
He looks out the window. Anything to settle his mind. As he passes the familiar landmarks on College Pike, he takes them in as if they’re entirely different now. The mall, the rent-a-car place, the Sushi restaurant, the gas station. He’s driven by them a thousand times. And yet they’re strange now, like visions from a previous life. Will he ever pass by them again?
Will he ever see his friends again?
His emotions crowd out his thoughts. Tears well in his eyes.
Don’t cry. That would be embarrassing.
He lowers his head and concentrates hard to stop the tears from coming. He tries to think of something unrelated. He settles on the test he took today. But the thought isn’t strong or vivid enough to take his mind off the frothing emotion. He tries to think of something calming.
He thinks about what that girl Jenny said to him in the hallway this afternoon, that she liked his jacket. She smiled at him and had a sparkle in her eye. He knew she wasn’t talking about the jacket. She always treated him kindly. She had smooth, clear skin, and a little patch of short punk hair. She wore a loose purple T-shirt with some kind of white design on it. He couldn’t remember what. She held her books in front, against her stomach and chest with her arms wrapped around them.
Will he ever see her again? Will he be back in school tomorrow? The prospect seems absurd to him now. There’s no telling where these guys are taking him, or for how long. His mind starts moving too fast again. It’s too much to process.
I want to go home!
The words almost burst out of his lips, but he manages to stifle them. He doesn’t want to seem childish, but by the same token, why should he care? He spits out a short “pppft” and whips back his head, trying to shake the emotion out of him. A tear sneaks out. His long hair sticks to the side of his face.
He listens to his heavy, loud breathing. He doesn’t want to attract his captors’ attention so he opens his mouth to breathe. As much as possible he wants to disappear into his dark back seat.
The men don’t say much, certainly not to Jack. The GPS voice calls out an upcoming turn. The driver taps the screen, and the audio goes out. The glowing GPS screen is the brightest object in the car. Its slowly moving road map provides Jack something to fixate on to quiet his raging thoughts.
He craves answers. Who are these guys? Why have they taken him? But he doesn’t want to ask. He can’t trust them. Whatever they say, how could he be sure it wasn’t all lies? What would be the point?
He realizes his feelings aren’t serving him. There’s nothing he can do here now. He has no control over the situation. He releases the tension in his shoulders and neck. Then he concentrates on relaxing his spine and his stomach. He slows his breathing. He concentrates on the humming of the vehicle’s motor all around him, drowning out everything else.
He blocks as much as he can from his mind, focusing on the hum. He feels the presence of the man sitting next to him. He begins to intuit motives from the man’s posture, the way he’s holding his hands at his thighs, the way his feet are planted on the vehicle floor, the way he’s breathing.
Jack believes they’re taking him somewhere far away. It’s just a vibe he’s getting. But it startles him.
He finds his way back into the humming sound. He wants to drift away and find more of that clarity and calm.
“How are we doing back there, Jack?” Comes a voice from the front, breaking him out of his zone.
Jack doesn’t want to respond. He wants to exude strength somehow. Defiance.
“Don’t you guys have to read me my rights or something? This is police brutality. Wrongful . . . prosecution or something.” He moves his head slowly to the side, feeling like a chump for even opening his mouth. Could he have said anything more ignorant or inarticulate? He spoke before he had his words planned out. And there goes his chance to seem like a confident tough-guy.
The two men in front share a look. The driver chuckles.
“It’s not funny!” Jack says.
“Settle down, Jack,” the one with the earring says. “No reason to get bent out of shape.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one in cuffs.”
The man’s earring is larger than Jack remembers. It’s like a big jewel wedged into his ear lobe. It glints off the bright store signs along the road. He turns around to face Jack, tilting his head down as if looking over nonexistent glasses pushed down his nose.
“You’re right, Jack. It’s not funny. At least, not that funny.” A wry smile forms on his face. “It’s pretty funny, though.”
“You can’t do this. This is illegal. It’s kidnapping. People will miss me. My Grandpa will call the police when I don’t come home.” Jack is surprised to hear his own voice. He sounds like a petulant child, a dumb kid who has no idea what he’s up against.
“Come on, now. I don’t think your grandfather knows how to use the telephone.”
Jack wonders how they know so much about his life.
“The thing is, Jack, it’s not police brutality because we haven’t hurt you.”
“And we’re not police,” one of the others adds.
“What are you, FBI?”
“No, we’re not that either,” Jewel says as he turns to face the front.
“Well, what are you then?” Jack doesn’t want to ask. It just comes out of him. “Can you tell me anything about what’s going on?”
“I can tell you one thing. You did really good on that test.”