Brett Harris polished off the last of his Big Mac, stuffing the wrapping back into the drive thru bag with one ketchup-stained hand while the other steadied the wheel. He washed it down with a sip of coke, making no effort to stifle the greasy belch that followed. Finished with the main course, Brett’s groping fingers found their way to what remained of the hors d’oeuvre.
Fries disappeared down his gullet in an impressive display of unabashed gluttony, the salty edge driving him to scrape every last bit of grit from the inner linings of the red box. Their nurturing completed, the iconic golden teats of American consumerism were reluctantly returned to the folds of modesty provided by the drive thru bag. Another sip of coke, another belch. The dregs were drained, the cup joined the rest. He rolled down the passenger-side window, taking a casual glance around before crumpling the paper bag at the neck and tossing it out. He saw it sail clean into the ditch from the side mirror, after which it immediately faded from both sight and mind.
He was trying to decide if he ought to pick up another six pack before heading home (he couldn’t quite remember just how much he’d had the night before) when he realized the van which had been trailing casually behind him for the last three miles or so had suddenly and rather aggressively cut the distance between them by more than half – and was still coming. Must’ve realized he’s running late for some city-slicker meeting, Brett mused, snorting. The van was modern; looked like one of those electric ones they’d started coming out with a while back. Nice enough, he supposed – if you were into that sort of thing. Personally Brett would’ve taken his classic (affectionate synonym for “old”) pickup over one of those fancy-ass foreign-made hipster toys any day. If some naïve Richie Rich tree hugger types wanted to throw their daddy’s money overseas that was their problem.
It was all country roads out here, choppy enough to warrant straddling the middle and deserted enough to permit it. Brett knew dirt-road etiquette as well as anyone who’d grown up around these parts, so when it became clear the van wasn’t playing catch-up for the fun of it he shifted aside to make passing room. But it didn’t. Instead it began to honk its horn, swerving slightly behind him as if hesitant to make the pass and blaming him for it.
“What the fuck?” he muttered, eyeing them askance in his rear-view. The occupants were obscured by the tinted windshield, nothing more than darkened silhouettes. Are they drunk or something? He rolled his window down, sticking his arm out and waving them on. No dice.
It occurred to him that the van’s motions almost seemed to be conveying a message or command – like they were trying to get him to pull over. He scoffed at this thought. Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen, you nutjob alkies. Calling the police never even crossed his mind – running to the boys in blue every time you had a problem was a chickenshit move that practically screamed city-slicker. Folks out here weren’t pansy-ass: they could take care of themselves, and a run-in with some hopped-up dumbasses hardly constituted an emergency.
As if to challenge this notion the van’s advances began to grow more frantic, more aggressive. Brett watched the vehicle in his rear-view, telling himself to ignore them even as he failed to tear his eyes away. Maybe I should just pull over and let them pass, he thought, hating how much that felt like admitting defeat. He slowed down, deciding he would flip them off as they went by. This brought him a margin of satisfaction as he inched closer to what little shoulder there was before it sloped into a poorly maintained ditch riddled with bushes and saplings.
And then it happened. Seeing their opening, the van pushed forward with unexpected intensity. They were head-to-head with Brett’s pickup in seconds. He had just enough time to catch a glimpse of the grim-faced woman in the passenger seat – her jaw set, his jaw slack – before the van cut right and he was run off the road.
The truck collided with a tree, Brett’s forehead collided with the steering wheel, and everything went dark.
Consciousness came in fits and starts, like a car engine sputtering back to life only to die again just when it finally seemed to catch. The blare of the pickup’s horn rang faintly in his ears as if from a distance. Dimly he realized his face was pressing down on the mechanism, keeping it on. He raised his head, the skin peeling away from the wheel begrudgingly, sticky with a warm coating of blood. Trepid fingers found their way to his forehead, prompting a dull jolt of pain as soon as they made contact.
The windshield had been shattered on impact. Broken glass littered the dashboard, flecks falling from his hair as he moved. Through the gaping hole that had been left framed in jagged crystalline teeth he could see the minivan, stopped only a few feet ahead of where he’d ended up. They ran me off the road, he thought numbly, and then, almost sardonic: probably calling the cops right now.
“Whassa matter? Never been in a fender-bender before?” he slurred to the immobile van. It idled indifferent, the exterior betraying nothing of what might be happening inside. Still, unhurried, self-assured. Almost like a predator lying in wait. No doubt in stark contrast to its occupants, he told himself, trying to quash that uneasy feeling in his chest. Those city-slickers must be shittin’ themselves, thinking they killed me or something. He tried to scoff, but the sound dried up in his throat as all four doors opened in synch and four very non-panicked individuals stepped out into the road and made their way to his truck.
“What, d’you wanna exchange insurance info?” he called out as they approached, failing to break their unnervingly calm demeanors. He’d intended to sound snide, bravely accusatory, but there was a quaver in his voice that told him more than he was willing to admit. Something was wrong. He reached for his cell, unsure exactly what he intended to use it for. To call the cops? That would have required admitting that he was incapable, that he needed help, that he was afraid.
On bad days he would lament never getting the chance. On worse days he would tell himself that he had gotten the chance, that if he’d only acted faster things would have been different. He would curse himself for being so proud, so stubborn.
On the worst days of all he knew it wouldn’t have made a difference either way.
They forced his door open, grabbing him roughly by the wrists, the legs, the shoulders and pulling him from the truck. He struggled feebly, still weak from the crash and too confused, too disoriented to put up a real fight. One more thing to regret, to fixate on, to beat himself up over. If only, if only, if only.
Before he knew it they had half-carried, half-dragged him into their minivan, faces stoic and unflinching. Someone produced a roll of duct tape which was promptly used to bind his arms at the wrists and legs just above the ankles. Another strip went over his mouth, followed by a cloth sack which was pulled over his head and then secured with more duct tape around his neck.
“All set,” one of his captors said, and the minivan immediately took off, jostling his unsecured body. He tried to struggle, tried to push himself up off the floor of the vehicle, but every time he made even the slightest amount of progress someone would shove him back down again. Deep down he knew it was purely reactionary and entirely pointless: he was blind, severely weakened, more than likely concussed, bound at the arms and legs, outnumbered three-to-one (not counting the driver), and stuck in a moving vehicle going at what felt like sixty miles per hour. In short, he was well and truly fucked.
And still he struggled, because to do anything else would have meant conceding, relenting. It would have meant accepting the futility of his situation, would have meant giving up and giving in. But Brett wasn’t ready to give up.
That would come later.
Time plays tricks on us all, but it is especially fond of incapacitated minds. Unable to watch the scenery zip by and unsure of the consistency of his own consciousness, Brett had no way of saying just how far they’d travelled before he felt the minivan coming to a stop. The engine slid smoothly into silence, unmarked by any of the coughing and sputtering that would invariably accompany his pickup’s shutoffs. An ominous voice in his head wondered if he would ever hear that familiar sound again, but Brett quickly snuffed this train of thought before it could take hold. He knew that this moment – the moment of transition between the moving vehicle and whatever they had in store for him next – was his best (he refused to think ‘only’) chance for escape. Now was not the time for defeatism.
He heard the doors being opened, felt them grab at his ankles and wrists. When they lifted him he made no effort to resist. He waited, waited until they’d carried him out of the van, waited until he felt the warmth of the sun on his body. Only then did he make his move. He kicked out, twisting and writhing in the air as he tried to wrench himself free. Fuck running, he thought, gritting his teeth in exertion. I’ll fucking hop if I have to. Hell, I’ll fucking roll away if that’s what it takes. Just please, Jesus, please let me get away. The person at his ankles lost their grip, and if not for the tape Brett might have let out a triumphant yell. As his lower body hit the ground he tried to use the momentum to yank his arms away as well, but their hold was too strong. Someone swore and Brett felt a sharp jap of pain as he was kicked him in the ribs. He curled in on himself, trying to protect his vitals. The hands around his wrists let go, but before he could question the release the full assault began.
Feet rained down on his body from all sides. He raised his taped-up arms to shield his head, but all this seemed to do was damage two body parts in one. He tried to cry out, tried to beg for mercy, but he was voiceless. His ears rang, his already sore and damaged body screamed in protest.
After what seemed like an eternity someone finally called for the attack to stop, but Brett had long since lost any awareness of what was happening. Vaguely he registered being lifted up again and carried off, his hope left behind somewhere in the dirt and gravel. It would be the first of a long cycle of separations and reunions, each making him warier than the last, until one day he would greet hope not as a trusted and uplifting friend, but a dark and deceitful stranger.
They forced him into a kneeling position, lifting the sack from his head and removing the tape from his mouth, arms and finally legs. He was too far gone to even get excited at the opportunity this presented. The fight had been beaten out of him, so much so that he couldn’t have made a move even if he’d wanted to. It might have been for the best: as one of his captors cut the tape from his body two others stood off to the side, armed with sinister-looking cattle prods.
They were in a bare concrete room, nothing more than four walls and a ceiling. A narrow indent lined the floor on the far side, the gutterlike space carrying on from left to right. He had no idea what purpose the room had been designed to serve, but there was no question what it was now: a cell. Brett moaned in protest, trying and failing to get to his feet. He landed on his side, too weak to try again. Behind him he heard his captors filing out of the room, heard them closing and locking the door behind them.
He was alone.
He stayed that way for a long time, curled up in the fetal position, sobbing quietly to himself. Sleep came and went unbidden, never deep and never for more than a few minutes at a time. People who were abducted in books and movies would always wake up in shock, not remembering where they were or how they’d gotten there, but it wasn’t like that for Brett. He would open his eyes each time knowing exactly where he was. He would have been glad for that brief moment of confusion and disorientation, for that split second of expecting to wake up in his own bed. But it never came. His mind never left that place.
When all his tears were spent and his body would accept no more rest, Brett wavered to his feet and had a proper look around his prison. He started with the gutter, seeing that it was no more than a few inches deep and wide. The space ran under both side walls, and when he put his head to the ground to peer down its length he saw that it carried on for quite some distance, presumably through dozens of identical iterations of his own cell. There were no signs of life that he could make out.
A long, thin gap in the outside wall above his head let in daylight. It was far too small to imagine fitting through, but he jumped for it all the same, if only to see his surroundings. No luck; it remained frustratingly out of reach.
There was a slot in the metal door, but it was covered with a lid and couldn’t be opened from the inside. He shook the door knowing it wouldn’t budge, and was still disappointed when it didn’t. Some things you just have to do.
He called for help until his voice was hoarse, to no avail. At one point he thought he heard someone cough, and later on what might have been the shuffling of feet, but when he called out again he was met only with silence.
The first meal they brought him sent him into a panic attack. Not because of the food itself, which he devoured graciously after being starved for what he felt must have been at least a day, but because of the unspoken message that came with it, the underlying implication written in its delivery.
It told him that they were in no hurry. It told him that they were going to take their time, that he was in this for the long run. Whatever they were going to do to him, it wouldn’t be quick.
He threw the bowl of oatmeal against the wall, somewhere between crying and screaming. He body-slammed the door until his shoulder hurt, and then he headbutted the wall until the pain overloaded his system and he careened towards the ground.
When he came to he crawled over to where the bowl had fallen, licking it clean before ravenously shifting his attention to the floor, scooping chunks of oatmeal directly into his mouth. Once this supply had been exhausted he moved to the wall, eating it directly off the concrete. The bowl was paper, the cup of water that followed Styrofoam. The significance of this would only occur to him later on, when he’d wish desperately for something he could break, for sharp edges and sturdy structure. You can’t cut yourself with paper; not enough to make a difference. Not enough to get it done.
This he would come to know.
Food came twice a day, only enough to keep him alive, to keep him hungry, keep him weak. They would bang on the door to signal for him to stand against the far wall, peer in through the slot in the door (never close enough for him to reach), and wait until he did as they commanded before opening it, sliding the food in, and locking it back. If he refused to comply they would simply leave, and he would receive no food. If he tried anything while the door was open they were always at the ready with their cattle-prods, after which he wouldn’t be fed for two days.
In the first few weeks he was strategic with his attempts, careful and stingy. Later on he would act out of desperation, frenzied and frantic with no concern for his well-being. Eventually he would do it only to feel something. He wouldn’t even actively try to escape; he would simply be uncooperative and it was enough. Perhaps he only wanted to prove to himself that he was still able to make his own decisions, that no matter what they did he would never truly be tame, never truly broken. Perhaps he was simply bored.
It had been (by his shaky count) seven days when they came for him for the first time. There was a banging on the metal door, and the familiar bark for him to stand against the wall with his back to them and his arms raised. When he’d done as they asked he heard the door being opened, but instead of quickly being shut again he heard their footsteps entering.
“Stay where you are,” the man warned, and he did. They’re releasing me, a tiny voice whispered inside his head, and though he was well past believing it, he wasn’t quite able to dismiss the possibility entirely. He was still ready to believe that this was all some big mistake, or that it was finally over.
They grabbed his arms and forced them behind his back, securing them with a zip tie. When this was done a sack was placed over his head and he was hoisted off the wall. In his mind he imagined being led outside, being forced to his knees before a shallow grave, being shot in the back of the head. The thought made him cold, but he made no attempt to resist. By this point he’d been shocked twice, and the memory of the pain still sent jolts down his spine. Besides, why would they feed him for a week only to shoot him now? Something told him their plans for him were far more elaborate.
He was taken to another room in the same building (he never felt the flooring change, never felt the warmth of the sun on his body) where they sat him down in a chair and tied him to the frame. Then the sack was removed, and he found himself squinting up at three of his captors, a sharp amber bulb hanging low from the ceiling.
“What is this?” he pleaded, on the verge of another breakdown. “What do you want?” He’d asked these questions and many more during the first dozen food deliveries, never receiving an answer, never receiving acknowledgment, but being face-to-face for the first time seemed to encourage the possibility of dialogue – even if he was tied to a chair.
They watched him silently. His eyes darted from one to the next, looking for any sign of openness, of emotion, some hint as to what they were thinking. Nothing.
“Why are you doing this? Why am I here?”
“You answer the latter, and we’ll answer the former.” The man’s voice was calm and gentle, yet Brett flinched – actually flinched – at the sound. If his father could have seen the weak, snivelling creature he’d become he would have been disgusted. Hell, the Brett from a week ago would have been disgusted.
“What?” Brett blinked up at the speaker, the one in the middle.
“Tell us why you’re here – why you think you’re here.”
Brett sputtered, confused. “P-please, I have a family. M-my wife…”
“Your wife? You think she’s the reason you’re here?”
“What? N-no! I don’t know why I’m here! You kidnapped me, you sick fucks!”
The shock came out of nowhere, coursing through his system and wreaking havoc on his pain receptors. His entire body tensed, the muscles aching with exertion. An eternity, and then finally, blissfully, he collapsed into himself. Dimly he saw the cattle-prod retreating, held by the woman on the right, the same one he’d made eye contact with in the passenger seat of the van. At first he couldn’t even place her; the whole incident on the road felt like a lifetime ago.
“If you get agitated we’ll be forced to subdue you. It’s best if you try to stay calm.”
Saliva dribbled down from his numb and open lips, pooling on the front of his shirt. He lolled his head in an attempt at righting it.
“The sooner you tell us why you’re here the easier it’ll be on all of us.”
“I… don’t… know…”
Brett took in a breath, trying to sum up the strength to do as the man asked. He didn’t understand what was happening or what they wanted from him, but what he did understand was pain. He would do whatever it took to avoid it.
“You… you’re terrorists.” They didn’t look like terrorists – they looked like college kids, exactly like the city-slicker hipsters he’d initially pegged them for – but who else kidnapped good, honest, hard-working American citizens for no reason? Besides, Fox News had warned that the towelheads were recruiting more and more American youth, brainwashing them and using them as puppets from overseas. It didn’t matter what they looked like. Anyone could be a terrorist.
The man in the middle smiled sadly. “No. We’re not terrorists- at least not in the sense that you’re thinking. And even if we were, it still wouldn’t have been the answer we’re looking for. We want to know why you’re here – not us.”
“I’m not here by choice!” he yelled in frustration, realizing his mistake too late. The prod was jabbed into his neck and held there for six agonizing seconds. When it was over his teeth ached and his jaw was locked in place. It took several attempts before he was able to loosen it again.
“Why are you here?” the man repeated, after giving him a moment to recover.
“Jesus. Did… did Otis send you? Is this because I owe him that money?”
“No. Guess again.”
Brett racked his mind, but it was blank. He didn’t deserve this. He hadn’t done anything to deserve this. “I- I’m sorry, I just-” The end of the cattle-prod came to life, crackling with malevolent energy. Brett panicked, inching away from the tool. “I cheated on my wife!” he cried out, saying the first thing that came to his mind. It had been years ago, a one-time thing that she had never found out about – and even if she had, Sheila would never have gone to such lengths to punish him for it. This was just too sadistic, too extreme. But it had come to mind and so he’d said it. “I cheated on my wife,” he repeated, encouraged by the sight of the prod shutting off.
But the man in the middle shook his head. “No. Guess again.”
In this way they made him list every bad thing he’d ever done, every person he’d ever hurt, every promise he’d ever broken. Logic and reasoning were gone; each answer was blurted on the spur of the moment, unconsidered and unquestioned. They came to mind in panic and he would shout them immediately, never quite believing that any of them might be the answer they were looking for yet desperate to buy time. He told them about the time he drank too much and knocked his ex-girlfriend about, about the kid he used to bully in high school, about the dog he’d hit with his car and then left to die on the side of the road. He told them things he’d never told anyone, things he’d long forgotten and things he wished he could forget. Nothing was private, nothing was exempt.
He stripped his conscience bare and all it bought him was three minutes and fourteen seconds.
After the first shock he began making things up, saying whatever came to mind, but they seemed to know he was lying because the answers no longer spared him from being shocked. Finally, when he could no longer keep his head upright or even sum up the energy to mumble excuses, they untied him from the chair and dragged him back to the room.
Seven days later they did it all over again.
On the third week, after telling them about the time he’d dine-and-dashed, once more left grasping for another delay, Brett told them that he used to litter. Everything was ‘used to’ now; it was all past-tense, all from another life. He would never litter again, not because he’d ever really stopped, but because he’d never get another chance.
“I used to litter. I used- I used to just toss my garbage anywhere,” he rambled, squeezing it for as many seconds as he could. He was worried it sounded too pathetic, too much like he was grasping at straws (which, to be fair, was exactly what he was doing). They’d recently taken to shocking him anytime he said anything overtly meager, or anything that was obviously an attempt at stalling. Instead the trio exchanged looks, and the cattle prod retreated. It was the first time he’d seen them react. His eyes jumped from one to the next, settling finally on the man in the middle.
“That… that can’t be it.” His voice was that of a stranger, hoarse from screaming and practically trembling with fear. “Littering?” Dumbly he recalled the moments before his abduction, when he’d tossed the McDonald’s bag out of his window. Hadn’t the van sped up to meet him almost immediately after that? “It can’t be,” he whispered.
“A deal’s a deal,” the man in the middle said, as the other two turned to leave. “You tell us why you’re here, and we’ll tell you why we’re doing this.”
“I’m here… because I threw that bag out my window?” he asked slowly, in bewildered disbelief.
“That’s correct. Well- to be precise, you’re here because we saw you throw that bag out.” He grinned. “We’re not omnipotent or anything: if we hadn’t seen you do it I’m afraid you would have gotten away with it, just as you did every other time.”
Brett shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
The man went over to the corner, grabbing a stool and carrying it back over. He sat down directly before Brett, facing him eye-to-eye. They studied one another’s faces for a long time, neither quite knowing what the other was searching for. Finally he began.
“There was a stray dog that used to hang around our neighborhood when I was a boy. Knackers, we called him. A little Russell-Terrier mix. He was friendly with all the kids, and we used to feed him scraps and stuff whenever we could. But it wasn’t enough; you could see his ribs poking out of his side, and we worried about how he would do once the cold settled in. So one day I took him home with me, thinking I’d adopt him as my own.” He shifted atop his stool. “Only thing was, my old man hated animals. Hated them. Thought they were all disease-infested vermin. I was worried he wouldn’t let me keep him, was worried that he would yell and shout and put up a big fuss.
“Instead he sat me down, and he told me that it wasn’t for him to tell me what to do with my life. He told me that I wasn’t responsible for his happiness, anymore than he was for mine. He said it was up to each man to take their happiness, their well-being, their lives into their own hands. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but it didn’t matter. I was ecstatic. My blissful incomprehension lasted right up until the next morning, when I found he’d beaten Knackers to death with his baseball bat. Only then did I understand.”
Brett shuddered. “Why are you telling me this?”
“So that you understand. I don’t blame you for being a selfish, conceited asshole. I’m sure if we went over your life with a fine-toothed comb we’d find some tragic reason for your lack of concern, something pitiful and sad and human. This isn’t about that. It’s not about you, understand? Just like your littering wasn’t a malicious act. It was just you being you. Just living your own life, completely devoid of any responsibility for anyone else’s. That’s what this is. It’s us living our own lives, completely devoid of any responsibility for you or yours. It’s not personal.”
“For littering?” Brett sobbed, the sheer absurdity of the situation finally hitting him full-force. It wasn’t fair. “You’re doing all this because I littered?”
“Well, yes. It’s such a disgusting, pointless, selfish thing to do. That kind of blatant disregard and disrespect for Mother Nature is unforgivable in our books.”
“But it was such a small thing!” he cried. “I don’t understand!”
“Neither do I,” the man replied stiffly. “If it was such a small thing, why didn’t you just wait to throw it out once you got to your destination? Where was the urgency? Why couldn’t you just have waited?”
In that moment Brett was too overwhelmed with incomprehension and disbelief to consider anything the man said, but in the weeks, months and years that followed they would give him plenty of time to think about it over and over and over again. It all boiled down to one word: why?
The question would resound in his head for the rest of his days, but he would never manage to give it an answer.
And in every room a narcissus, seeing only their own reflections, seeing only the features, fears and flaws they look for, blind to everything else.