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I was supposed to be doing my algebra homework that night. Nobody ever tells you, "do your algebra and it will keep you safe. It will protect you from being kidnapped." nobody ever says that. But in my case, that night, it might have been true.
I didn't do my algebra homework. I should have I'd made a promise to my dad, after all. But it was such a soft spring night, the first evening since October that had had any warmth to it. It was one of those nights when you can almost feel the seasons changing, when you can begin to hope that you're done with bitter cold and dead earth and harsh winter winds. It'd just be wrong to use a night like that for algebra homework.
So instead of picking up my pencil and solving for x, I climbed out my bedroom window and sat on my balcony, my arms wrapped around my legs, my back against the wall, my chin perched on my knees.
When I say "balcony," you're probably picturing something out of Romeo and Juliet, maybe with lacy wrought-iron fleur-de-lis on the railing, a place where I could lean out and sigh longingly as my boyfriend called up to me from below. In reality I didn't have a boyfriend, and it was actually a bit of a stretch to say that I had a balcony. My house ours, I mean, where I lived with my father was a rickety one-and-a-half-story wood-framed box. Springdale's a college town, and the houses here were built for penny-pinching college students and only-slightly-less-impoverished professors whose minds would be so filled with deep thoughts that they might not notice cracks in the foundation and walls that met at skewed angles. So my "balcony" was just a flat section of roof, unevenly shingled, with a wobbly wood railing barely more than ankle high, and an equally wobbly wooden staircase trailing down the side of the house to the ground. My father used to theorize that the staircase dated back to the early 1900s, when our house was a rooming house for college girls, and the housemother might have been too deaf to hear the girls sneaking out at night.
I'm pretty sure that's not the kind of musing an ordinary father would share with his daughter. Fathers generally don't tell daughters about ways to escape. But the way I'd lived for the past five years, even my absentminded father must have seen that it would take much more than a rickety staircase to draw me away.
So there I was on the balcony, staring out at the beginnings of buds on the limbs of our maple tree. Occasionally clusters of college students would pass by on the sidewalk down below, coming back from the library or the bars or meetings where they were planning to save the endangered American burying beetle or planning to aid the refugees of some war nobody else had ever even heard of. (Springdale College was founded by reformers attempting to bring their utopian ideals to the Midwest its students had a long tradition of working for obscure lost causes.) I wasn't really listening to the bursts of excited chatter drifting up to me through the maple boughs; I wasn't really thinking about how deceptive it was that those college students seemed so nearby when really we were living in completely different worlds. They would have heard me, easily, if I'd called out to them. But either they or I might as well have been American burying beetles, for all the connection we actually shared.
Then it happened.
One minute I was just sitting there, staring blankly out at our tree's empty branches and the empty sidewalk, in the gap between students passing by. In the next moment strong arms were scooping me up, and a voice was hissing, "Shh! Shh! Don't make a sound!"
I could have screamed. I had time, before the hand clamped over my mouth, before I was hustled down the stairs, before my mind clouded over with panic and other voices. But I dare you: You try, if you're ever kidnapped, to do the exact right thing at the exact right time. You try it in regular life, when you might have all the time in the world to think and plan. Sometimes you just make mistakes.
I didn't scream. I let my body go limp, which probably made it much easier to stuff me into the car waiting in the alley.
"Put her in the back. I'll drive yes, there hurry..." I couldn't be sure I really heard them conversing. Or conspiring. Whatever. There was so much else echoing in my head, so many other conversations distracting me:
That poor girl. Do you think she's going to be all right?
...anything else we could do to help?
...I thought this essay...
And those bangs! Can you believe that hair?...
You know, the youngest...
I couldn't have said what was real and immediate and right there, before my very ears, and what was dim and distant and not exactly relevant at the moment. Then the hand came off my mouth and someone was pushing my face toward the cracked vinyl seat pushing rather gently, actually, for a kidnapper.
"Sorry," a voice said. "You're going to have to keep your head down until we're out of town."
The hand slipped back over my mouth. The car lurched forward, but slowly, like it was barely creeping through the gravel alley. I could tell when we reached pavement at the corner of Vine Street because the car whipped dramatically to the right and sped up with a screech of the tires.
"Careful!" the voice beside me called out. "Remember, Springdale's a speed trap!"
This struck me as funny kidnappers worrying about a speeding ticket? but the car slowed slightly.
"Nobody's following us, are they?" the driver asked.
From my position with my face smashed against the vinyl, I could tell that the boy holding my mouth shut had turned around to look out the rear window.
Boy, I thought dazedly. It's two boys who are kidnapping me. I felt strangely proud, that I could think my own thoughts, despite all the other noise in my head. Despite being kidnapped.
The car slowed because of the traffic light at the corner of Vine and Liberty, I guessed and then veered left.
"No! That's the way they'd expect us to go!" the boy beside me exploded.
"Okay, okay. Let me think "
"Go out 643!"
The car made a U-turn, with more screeching tires and a little wobble that made me wonder if the whole thing might just flip over. I hadn't been in a car in a while, but I did remember seat belts. I wanted a seat belt. Maybe if I asked nicely, if I promised to keep crouching down, the kidnappers would let me wear one?
Just then the boy holding on to me let go.
"Yee-ha!" he yelled. "We did it!" I turned my head slightly and opened one eyelid a crack I had just then realized I'd had both eyes squeezed tightly shut. The boy was pumping his fists in the air, cheering, like someone in the pep section at the Springdale College football games. Except this boy looked too young to be in college. He was thin, the way a lot of teenagers are when they've grown so quickly they can't eat enough to keep up. He had chin-length brown hair that was a little bit straggly his ears stuck out on the sides. And he had a kind face. I say that even though he'd just kidnapped me: You could just look at him and know he'd never kicked a dog, probably never even killed a fly.
"Are you all right?" the boy said. "You can sit up now it's safe. We're out of Springdale. You're free. We rescued you!" He beamed at me, a beatific smile, like an angel's in an art book.
"Where would you like us to take you?" the boy in the driver's seat asked from the front. "I've got my cell phone. Is there someone you want to call?"
Granted, I'd never been kidnapped before, but it struck me that those probably weren't typical kidnapper questions. I would have answered, except that one of the voices in my head said just then, Oh, I hate this one! That little girl is such a brat.
"Here," the boy beside me said, lifting my head from the seat. He did it too quickly, given that my face had been plastered there for so long. I moaned with the pain of my skin peeling away from the vinyl.
"Oh, no!" the boy said. "Are you all right? I'm sorry, I'm sorry.... Really, there's no reason to be scared. Do you want something to drink? We've got some cans of Pepsi somewhere in here...." He was lifting my shoulders, propping me up, even as he scanned the floor for the promised Pepsis. "Darnell, I think she's in shock or something. She's just..."
The car eased over onto the side of the road, rolling onto gravel. We were out in the country now. Springdale's small enough that you're in the country after about ten minutes in any direction. The driver had very responsibly switched on his flashing emergency lights so that anyone driving past could avoid hitting him. Some small, overly analytical part of my brain thought, Look, guys, if you're going to make a go at being kidnappers, you really shouldn't draw attention to yourselves like that.
But no one was driving by. No headlights swept into the car, not even from far down the road.
"Oh, no. We did scare you, didn't we?" the driver said, turning around to face me. In the scant reflected glow of the emergency lights, I could see only that his hair was as shaggy as his friend's, but blonder. "Look, we're on your side. We just wanted to save you from your father."
"My...father?" I choked out. The word stuck in my throat. It was difficult to say.
"Well, yeah," the boy beside me said. "We know who you are. We know all about you."
I let that pass, even though it couldn't be true.
"Look," the driver said, picking up something from the seat beside him. He passed back a newspaper clipping no, not exactly a newspaper clipping. A tabloid clipping. He obligingly turned on the car's overhead light (making us more conspicuous, I'm sure) and shook out the wrinkles in the paper. Then he handed it to me.
I looked down at it, forcing my eyes to focus, to read. The headline said:
FORMER CHILD STAR HELD HOSTAGE DOWN BELOW, THERE WAS SMALLER TYPE: BY FANATIC DAD
Down below there was smaller type:
NOT EVEN ALLOWED TO WATCH TV!
I blinked, my vision swinging in and out of focus. I reminded myself that I'd known how to read perfectly well since I was four, so it shouldn't be that much of a struggle to go on, to keep reading. I gulped and launched myself into the article itself:
Everyone knows that Lindsay Scott, former child star of the TV hit series Just Me and the Kids, vanished from Hollywood five years ago, when Kids was canceled. Now our crack investigative team has discovered that the blame lies with her fanatical father, a failed college professor with bizarre ideas about the "evils" of the modern world.
"Failed"? I thought. "Failed"? I winced, gasped for air, and went on.
Poor Lindsay is now virtually a prisoner in her home, rarely leaving the tiny house, and then only under the supervision of her father.
"You've got to wonder about that family," said one neighbor, who was completely unaware of Lindsay's true identity. "I lived here two years before I even knew there was a daughter. The first time I saw her face in the window, I thought it was a ghost."
Lindsay's father, Arthur Scott Curran, has taught literature, history, and "American studies" at several colleges around the country. And he's published numerous essays longing for a return to "simpler days" and "less obsession with technology rather than face-to-face human interaction." Which is strange, given that he barely allows his famous daughter to see anyone face-to-face.
"Her father?" said Daniel DeLarue, who directed Lindsay in Just Me and the Kids. "He was an odd bird. Only met him once or twice. Whatever the opposite of a stage parent is, that was him. He was never on the set."
Experts theorize that sometimes parents of famous children become jealous, and even attempt to punish their children for their success. Curran's unusual views make some wonder why he allowed his daughter to work in Hollywood in the first place. His essays complain about, among other things, TV, Internet dating, cell phone plans, the interstate highway system, and bikinis. Ironically, given his daughter's career, he once wrote, "I would never allow a television in my home!"
The connection between Curran's obscure writings and his famous daughter has gone unnoticed all these years because she never used her father's name professionally.
There was more mainly a recap of Lindsay Scott's acting career, and some of the more famous moments of Just Me and the Kids, I guessed but my eyes were suddenly too blurry to read on.
No! I thought sternly. You will not cry! You will not cry! You will not cry! I forced my mind into analytical mode. Literary criticism, I told myself. You will analyze this article for theme, bias, grammatical correctness...
Anyone would be able to tell that this article came from a tabloid rather than a reputable newspaper, because there was no mention of an actual location for Lindsay Scott's "tiny house." And both the neighbor and psychological "experts" were unnamed. And "American studies" was in quotation marks, as if it were something dangerously suspect.
"Well?" the boy beside me said, as if he were sure I'd had enough time to digest the entire article. "That is you, isn't it?"
He sounded anxious, uncertain suddenly. If I just said no, would they turn around and take me home?
But the other boy answered for me.
"Toby! Of course that's her! That's her house!"
For the first time I noticed that there were two pictures with the article. They were both blurry, black and white, poorly reproduced.
But one of the pictures was definitely of my house.
It had been taken in the wintertime, I decided, because the yard was a vague, shapeless gray the aftermath of that snowstorm in February, probably, when the snow lingered for weeks, losing its white purity, turning dingier by the day. The day the snow fell, I'd stood in the backyard, my face upturned, staring into the swirl of flakes, shutting out everything else. By the fifth day, though, I'd stopped looking out the window.
The house itself, in the picture, looked even more rundown than usual and in need of a good coat of paint. If I squinted, I could just make out the stacks of books and papers threatening to overtake the front windows from the inside. The front steps monumental dividing lines for me, delineating one world from another looked inconsequential. Maybe they were partially hidden by the snow?
"We knew it was your house," the boy beside me Toby? started explaining, "because we saw it when we were delivering furniture in Springdale."
"We deliver all sorts of things," the boy from the front, Darnell, contributed. "After school and on weekends."
"We're the only delivery guys in the whole county, really," Toby said.
"Well, who else would do it? The pay sucks," Darnell said.
I got the feeling the two of them were used to finishing each other's sentences.
"So we saw your house, and I was like, 'Whoa, hit the brake, Darnell!'"
"No you jerked your foot over and hit the brake yourself idiot! We're lucky that couch we were carrying didn't flip off the back of the pickup!" Darnell corrected.
Toby shrugged, acknowledging guilt or luck, one or the other.
"See, I was really in love with you when I was about ten years old," Toby said.
I must have recoiled at that, because suddenly Toby was holding his hands up, a gesture of innocence.
"No, no, it's not like that!" he said anxiously. "I mean that's why I wanted to save you. We're not stalkers or anything. Well, we did keep coming past your house after that, but it was just to see if you needed any help...and then we saw you the other night, looking out your window, and we were sure it was you, and you just looked so...sad."
I wasn't sure which night he meant, but I knew how I would have looked.
"Not nearly as happy as you used to be," Darnell added from the front. He pointed at the other picture, the one inset below the picture of my house. It was an official publicity shot of Lindsay Scott, the actress, aged about eleven. The girl in the picture was pretty and dark-haired, with clear skin and even features, but that wasn't what was most striking about the photo. What really stood out was her confidence. That grin on her face all but spoke, I am so in control of my own life. I know everything I need to know. Right now.
Which was so ironic I could barely stand to think about it.
"You think I still...look like that?" I mumbled.
And regretted it instantly, because wasn't that "still" an admission? Didn't it shut out the possibility that I could firmly say, "I'm not her. You have the wrong person. Take me home"?
I regretted it too because Toby flinched a little. He was going to lie.
"Well, sure," he said. "You're just older and..."
"Sadder," Darnell added.
"So that's why you thought I needed help?" I asked, with a steely edge to my voice. I was thinking, I can still act, after all.
I saw then that Toby had just started to stretch his hand toward me. Why? To pat my back? To stroke my hair? To touch my face? To comfort me? At my first word he jerked his hand back, and I was so tempted to say, "No, wait! It's okay! Go ahead! Comfort me!"
But I would have cried if I'd tried to say any of those words.
"Look," I said, straightening up, trying to muster up whatever fake Lindsay Scott confidence I could still carry off. "This is all a mistake. My father is not holding me hostage."
My voice wavered on the word "father."
Toby and Darnell stared at me, befuddlement reflected in both sets of eyes.
"You're saying that's all a lie?" Darnell asked, gesturing toward the article.
"Well..." I hesitated a fraction of a second too long. What amazed me most about the article was how much of it was accurate while being completely wrong about everything that actually mattered. I finally settled for, "You know how supermarket tabloids like to twist the truth."
Their eyes were boring into me now, painfully. It'd been a long time since anybody had watched me that carefully. I couldn't take it. I looked down.
"What do you think, Toby?" Darnell said softly, as if he thought they could carry on a private conversation right in front of me.
I could feel Toby still watching me, trying to read my body language: the slump of my shoulder, the hair slipping down to hide my face. I made myself square my shoulders, shake my hair back, put on a brave facade. But I didn't quite dare to look directly at either one of them.
"What if it's that stockyards syndrome thing?" Toby asked.
"Huh?" Darnell asked.
"You know I saw this show on TV. Sometimes people who are kidnapped or imprisoned or whatever start sympathizing with the people holding them captive," Toby said. "Even when they have a chance to escape, they don't."
"You mean you think she's sympathizing with us?" Darnell asked.
"No with her dad," Toby said, sounding annoyed that Darnell didn't get it. "That'd be why she didn't run away on her own, even though he didn't have her chained up or anything."
I wished I'd thought before to mention the lack of chains, ropes, locks, or anything else holding me captive anything visible, anyway. Both boys were looking at me too doubtfully for me to press that point now.
"But why's it called 'stockyards syndrome'?" Darnell asked.
"I don't know I guess animals on their way to be killed at the stockyards act like they sympathize with the farmers?" Toby said.
There was something about being kidnapped even by boys who didn't exactly seem like cold-blooded criminals that made me cringe at the word "killed."
I forced myself to raise my head.
"It's 'Stockholm,'" I said. "Stockholm syndrome, like the city in Sweden. Not stockyards." I drew in a deep breath, drawing upon all my rusty acting skills to try to sound calm and rational, and unaffected by any syndrome. "And I don't have Stockholm syndrome, so, thank you very much, but I don't need saving. Just take me home. Now."
My voice cracked no, it splintered. A thousand points of light, I thought, remembering a phrase one of my father's political science professor friends liked to quote. Only, I just revealed a thousand points of pain.
Neither boy reacted right away.
"Oh, shoot," Toby finally said.
"What?" I said, the word wobbly and anguished, my mouth barely able to form the sounds.
"Well, how can we tell if you have stockyards I mean Stockholm syndrome or not? Are you upset because we kidnapped you or because you know, deep down, that your father's a terrible man but you don't want to admit it?" Toby asked.
He had such steady brown eyes. His was the kind of gaze that a girl could drown in not me, not any real girl, but the flighty fictional ones who inhabited the cheesy romance novels my babysitters were always leaving around the house when I was little.
I shook my head, trying to clear it.
"Why can't you just believe me?" I asked. "I don't have Stockholm syndrome! I'm not lying to you!"
Even if my professional acting skills hadn't been rusty, I'm not sure I could have carried that off. Not when I was mentally adding qualifiers: Not lying directly, anyway. Only lies of omission, and they don't really count, do they?
Toby and Darnell looked even more doubtful.
"Well...," Toby said.
"Maybe...," Darnell said.
I could tell neither of them was a fast decision maker.
"Roz would know what to do," Toby said finally.
"She doesn't get off work until nine, and what are we going to do until then?" Darnell asked. "Where can we go?"
"The Party Barn?" Toby offered.
Let me just say that not watching TV or movies for the previous five years hadn't exactly stunted my imagination about how bad things could happen to teenage girls at places with names like The Party Barn. Yes, Dad had been the one to choose most of my library books since we'd moved to Springdale, but he hadn't been into sheltering my literary taste. He'd brought me The Lovely Bones, Freaky Green Eyes, Speak.
It was so much easier to keep thinking about books fiction than to figure out how I could talk them out of taking me to that Party Barn place.
"Home," I said. "Take me home."
Toby was still watching me, his eyes narrowed. He was concentrating hard. School probably didn't come easily to him; he didn't seem like someone who trusted himself to come up with the right answers.
"Nope," he finally said, shaking his head slowly. "This is what we've got to do."
I did think, then, about jerking open the car door and jumping out. I thought, I should have done that as soon as they stopped the car. But I'd barely been away from my house in the past few years. The vast, dark field by the side of the road looked scarier to me than the inside of Darnell's car. Anyhow, Darnell and Toby would have been able to chase me down, to catch me....
It was too late. Darnell had shifted his car out of park; he was speeding down the road. He reached one hand up to turn out the overhead light, and then the whole car was dark.
I realized I was shaking. Shivers rippled through me; my teeth chattered.
"Hey," Toby said. "Hey. It's okay. We're not going to hurt you. I promise. Darnell Darnell, can't you tell her something that will make her believe us?"
I scrunched over against the door, as far away from Toby as I could get. One of the voices in my head said, Yes, that's what I'd like to do with her. And then...So I couldn't hear Darnell's attempt at convincing me.
I don't know how long it took to get to the Party Barn, but it was a big, dark building in the middle of more vacant fields. Toby had to carry me in. I think I was sobbing by then I must have been, because Toby started saying, "Oh, man, she's completely freaking out! What are we going to do?"
Darnell opened the door of the Party Barn with a key. It was a broad enclosure, clean and bright and modern. A place that shouldn't have had any ghosts or ghostly voices.
But I could still hear an echo in my mind: Oh, that Lindsay...
"See, it's a safe place," Toby was saying. "People rent it out for family reunions and 4-H events and church picnics and..." He must have seen me looking at a big-screen TV in the center of a cluster of couches. "And football parties. You know."
I didn't know. Family reunions and 4-H events and church picnics and football parties weren't part of my life.
Toby placed me gently on one of the couches.
"Look," he said. "We'll just go. You'll be fine here by yourself. And then we'll come back with Roz, and she'll know what to do."
Incredibly, he was tucking a comforter around my shoulders. And then he and Darnell must have tiptoed out, because when I opened my eyes again, they were gone.
I could still hear them, though. I could still hear their voices, loud and clear and worried: Oh, man, we really messed up. Now what are we going to do?
Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Peterson Haddix