by Sarah Gribble
I noticed him on a Saturday morning. He was fingering tomato plants across the square, nodding every so often at whatever the stall operator was saying. His eyes crinkled when he smiled, but too much, like he’d read the cliché about smiles not meeting eyes too many times and decided to reverse the idea—his never quite reached his mouth.
He didn’t buy a tomato plant. I followed him the rest of the morning; he didn’t buy anything.
Whether or not I had been drinking that morning is of no importance. What is important is when I returned to my dilapidated two-bedroom ranch, I wrote more than I had in months.
I’ve been called many things in my life: alcoholic, mooch, one-hit-wonder. My ex-husband nicknamed me Peter Pan before he got lawyers involved. What I saw as waiting for inspiration to strike, he saw as a refusal to act like an adult and get a “real” job. I got the house, though, so I can’t complain too much.
Meeting Calvin that day—I named Tomato Plant Guy Calvin because he reminded me of a retired model—lit a fire in me that I can’t explain. For hours I sat, eyes closed, hands flying over the keys as I tried to record each and every movement, mannerism, cant of the head. When a young woman passed, did he do a double-take? Did he meet someone’s eyes when speaking to them? When I ran out of what I knew, I began imagining things. Was his slight limp permanent, from some long-ago accident in which he lost the love of his life, or just a minor injury from playing a pick-up game last weekend? Was his worn college tee-shirt a representation of the best years of his life or just the first thing he picked out this morning? The possibilities were endless. He was a font of inspiration and I could do anything with the idea of him.
My problem became—after I tried to write several stories and never made it past the second act—that I didn’t want to imagine Calvin’s life. I needed to know.
Multiple sleepless nights followed. I kicked myself for not driving after him when he left the market. What kind of writer lets their inspiration just disappear like that?
That familiar dark cloud began rising up, ready to envelop me and block out my days like a thunderhead covering the sun. And then, Thursday night, I had the most comforting thought: I would go to the farmer’s market again Saturday morning. People at those things were supposed to be diehard fans of dirty, deformed produce and unpasteurized honey. He was bound to be there again.
I celebrated with a bottle of cheap whiskey.
He wasn’t there on Saturday. I arrived while the “farmers” were still setting up, earning myself many a side eye, and stayed until they tore down and the only sign of the market was a thoroughly smashed tomato ground into the sidewalk.
Even then I stayed, staring at that tomato, noticing how it had exploded, the spatter reaching a couple feet in all directions. No doubt it covered the clothes and shoes of the person who performed the tomato-cide as well. It would probably stain. A person can’t commit a crime like that and not be covered in their guilt.
I briefly entertained the idea of returning the following Saturday—and possibly even the one after that, and the one after that, and every one until I found him. I sometimes get such a surge of motivation, a glimpse of the determination that marked my early twenties, the drive my husband fell in love with. It dissipates quickly these days; by the time I’d left the bench in the square, I’d decided all was hopeless and my only recourse was to crawl into a bottle. The only logical next step was to decide between whiskey and vodka—a decision I couldn’t manage to make. So I got both.
I was half a bottle in when my agent called. She was sorry, it had been years since my last book, she’d given me ample time, there were other talented authors clamoring in the wings, blah, blah, blah. I had some choice words for her. When she told me I should get help, I hung up.
I don’t remember much about the following months besides a blur of late notices, bad takeout, and faux concerned calls from my ex. Was I eating, getting out, taking a shower? What I heard was, Did you mow the lawn, clean the tub, make sure there are no roaches in the kitchen?
At some point I moved my desk and computer down to the basement. I remember this well because I tripped and broke an empty vodka bottle while trying to maneuver it around a corner. I cut my foot pretty bad. I wrapped a clean enough shirt around it then followed up with some duct tape I found on my husband’s old tool bench. Then I had a bottle of something and lit a bonfire in the backyard to which I fed all my unfinished writing. I liked the desk down in the basement better: it stunk of failure.
I only emerged when I ran out of alcohol. To the store—in, out, quick. I couldn’t stand the looks I got, the way mothers pursed their lips and held tight to their children when I walked by.
I don’t know how much time had passed since I’d first seen Calvin. I do know there was a chill in the air when I saw him again. I was stumbling around the grocery store parking lot, trying to remember where I parked my car, when I noticed a guy leave his cart in the middle of an empty spot. I thought of saying something, chuckled, then stopped in my tracks. There was something about the bend of his shoulders, the slight limp—from accident or pick-up game?—that rooted me in place. I almost dropped my bags. The bottles clinked together loudly, drawing his attention. My heart stopped as his eyes met mine. I must’ve looked like a deer in headlights, a teen caught smoking, a dog shamed over a golden puddle on the floor. He smiled his weird, eye-crinkling smile and offered to help me to my car. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, but I managed to nod. With a chuckle he asked if I was having a party, then frowned a bit when I didn’t answer. He carefully placed my bags in the trunk while I stared and didn’t speak. When he finished, I took a step toward him, arms gravitating upward, meaning to give him a thank you hug or kiss or blessing. He side-stepped, cleared his throat, gave an awkward farewell wave. My eyes followed him as he folded himself into the driver’s seat of a Yaris. The report of his door slamming brought me back to myself; only then did I realize I’d been grinning so long, my cheeks hurt.
I made the decision right then and there. I couldn’t let this cart-disregarding, Yaris-driving, tomato-plant-feeling, drunk-helping, interesting man go again. So I followed him home, like I should’ve done months before.
For the next several weeks I skipped my morning slug so that I could drive to Mark Avenue, park under a tree a discreet distance away, and watch Calvin. He lived in one of those neighborhoods where every house is a carbon copy of the last, save for a slight variation in neutral paint. Calvin hated it and I loved that about him. He left his garbage cans on the curb, didn’t keep up with his landscaping, and flipped off his neighbors behind their backs. He also recycled, took frequent bike rides, and—if the contents of his mailbox could be relied upon—gave to half a dozen charities. He woke at the same time every morning, nine on the dot, but the rest of the day was unscheduled and sporadic. He never left to go to work—conveniently for me—so I assumed he freelanced. I began to imagine he was a writer like me, that maybe we could get coffee and gripe about the industry together, maybe even co-write a novel together.
When that proved too fanciful even for me, I decided he was a spy. Not like a Russian agent; more like corporate espionage. I liked this new idea and ran with it.
Every evening, I tore myself away from Calvin and returned home, descended to the basement, and poured every little detail onto my hard drive while I poured vodka into my stomach. My newest story was really taking form. So much better than the drivel I’d written in the past, there was no way it wouldn’t be a bestseller. I was so confident of this fact, I called my agent. Multiple times. When she stopped answering, I left her a message: she’d be sorry, I didn’t need her, she was bad at her job anyway.
I wrote as much as I could of Calvin’s story, but there were holes. Gaping ones. I grew frustrated, staying later every night to watch him, hoping to discover some new fact that would let me see.
There was nothing. Eventually, I realized I could learn no more by merely watching him. If I really wanted to round out my character and story, I’d have to see his reactions for myself.
I’d never kidnapped anyone before, but what I had done was spend two decades of my life reading crime novels. While no expert, I was no dummy, either.
Incapacitation is the most obvious way to abduct someone. There’s zero chance of them running and very little chance of any cries for help. But Calvin was much bigger than me; I may be stocky, but my height just can’t handle a guy as tall as Calvin. I needed him to move of his own accord. Riskier, yes, but necessary. My plan was simple and involved something I already had lying around the house: a gun. All I had to do was wait for one of his evening bike rides.
His route varied daily, but he always returned the same way. I simply hid behind a cluster of bushes and waited until the right moment, then jumped into his path. He swerved, skidded, and ultimately fell. There was a sharp crack when he went down, followed by a howl of pain. I winced at the suddenly twisted form of his forearm, but watched his expressions, the way he bit his lip so hard it bled, how he rolled back, cradling his arm to his chest. My breath hitched. This was exactly what I needed.
I got so excited watching him I almost forgot my goal. When he started screaming and calling me names, I launched into action.
First: Oh, are you okay? I’m so, so sorry, here let me help, blah, blah, blah.
Second: Pull the gun from my waistband and whisper menacing words.
I’d been up half the night planning the script. There were so many cheesy bad guy lines. I wanted to be simple but cool. What came out was neither; it was more like a toddler attempting their first complex sentence. I hadn’t considered my own nerves when planning. He saw the gun and got the drift, though.
Getting him to the car was easy. It wasn’t far away and I think he was in shock. When I told him to drive, he pointed at his broken arm and said he couldn’t. He spoke so matter-of-factly, with such a haughty look on his face, that I believe he thought he’d thwarted my plans with that one sentence, and my only choice would be to drive off without him.
I chewed it over for a second. Broken bones definitely weren’t in the plans—at least not at this stage. Ultimately I told him to suck it up and use the other arm. I felt bad, but things never end well when the kidnapper drives.
So many emotions coursed through me as we pulled up to my house. I was still nervous, but now a sort of giddiness crept in. I felt manic, similar to that time I’d tried speed in college. I tried to take note of every emotion—maybe I could have an antagonist’s point of view in my book. I grinned; my agent would love that.
The butterflies gave way to shame when we walked through the front door and were hit in the face with an awful stench: stale alcohol, rotting meat, a hint of vomit. Calvin recoiled.
“I… must’ve forgot to take out the trash,” I said.
“For how long?” he shot back.
Up to this point, I’d been able to pretend I was simply bringing home an old friend—Calvin had acted well enough; I’d barely had to threaten with the gun—but his comment left me wanting to control him, to show him who was the boss.
I pushed him.
He lurched forward, tripped, tried to catch himself. He screamed in agony as fresh blood flowed from his arm.
“Maybe now you’ll remember who’s in charge.” I said the tough guy words but my voice wavered. Calvin probably didn’t hear me, though; he passed out a second later.
When he came to, he was propped in a rusty lawn chair in my moldering basement. I had soup waiting. Soup is nice, homey, something a mother provides to comfort. It was my way of apologizing—for the arm and for what was to come.
He refused it. Said he didn’t feel well. I believed him. His face was a waxy gray, his upper lip beaded in sweat. He was curled into himself like a spider trying to hide but still looking like it might spring if provoked. I apologized for his bindings; I had to keep him in the chair somehow. He glared at me.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
I held up an index finger while my pen scratched away at my notebook paper. He waited. “Taking notes,” I said when I’d finished.
A flash of fear shot through his eyes, followed by a narrow, intense look of hatred. My eyes widened and I picked up my pen once more.
“You’re sick,” he spat.
That hurt. I shook my head. “You don’t understand.” I rose and moved toward my desk. I shuffled papers and notebooks, empty Chinese containers and fifths, until I found my latest draft. Flipping the crisp paper under my nose, I closed my eyes and took a big sniff. Sighed.
“I’m writing a book,” I said, holding the stack out to him. “About you.”
His brow furrowed. I laughed.
“No, nothing creepy,” I insisted. “Look.” I held up a page for him to read. The basement lighting was dim and he had to squint.
“I’m a writer. I just needed to see. Get it?” My brain felt jumbled. I wasn’t at all sure I was explaining myself correctly.
“‘Calvin’s eyes wrinkly, he looks in, three men, Sheila…’” He trailed off. “What is this?”
I jerked the paper away, scowling. “‘Calvin moved to the window and took a quick look inside,’” I read aloud. “‘Three men, all armed. That didn’t matter; they’d taken Sheila and he was going to get her back no matter what they did to him.’” Giving the real Calvin a pointed look, I shook the paper in his face. “A book. You’re a spy whose great love gets kidnapped, and you’ll do anything to save her. Not long after this scene, the bad guys catch you and torture you for information about your boss.”
He wasn’t listening. I snapped my fingers in his face. “It’s a brilliant novel, a future bestseller.”
“Look, lady, if you want me to say I see a novel written on these pages, I’ll do it. I’ll go before the Almighty and do it—”
Delusional. He had to be.
“—but you’ve got to do something for me.”
“You’ve got to set my arm.”
I shook my head violently. The thought made me sick. I didn’t want to hear the snap of bones again. Besides, Calvin’s torturers wouldn’t set a bone for him, so doing it wouldn’t serve my purposes.
“I don’t know how.”
He swallowed like he was trying to keep bile down. “Then you have to take me to someone who can,” he said softly.
“Calvin,” I said, sitting opposite him once again, “I can’t do that either.”
He studied me. “My name isn’t Calvin,” he said after a moment. “It’s Chris. Chris Fisher.” He nodded once, slowly, like he was explaining something to a child.
I smiled; so he’d read crime novels, too.
First rule of being an abductee: Make your captor see you as a person.
Second rule: Establish a relationship with said captor.
There was no way I was giving him my real name, so I went with my pen name.
“No. S. E. Initials.”
He frowned but didn’t seem completely disheartened. “S.E., I need a doctor. I had an accident. A bad one. Do you understand? I need help.”
Again, I shook my head. “Like I said, the bad guys are about to torture you. And the thing is, Calvin, I don’t know exactly how you would react to torture. I need to see it, in person, to finish the story. Do you understand?” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder at the tool bench behind me.
Calvin closed his eyes and hung his head.
“I can offer you a shot of vodka if you want. After, though. I’m sorry, but I can’t risk his reaction being dulled during.”
When he didn’t respond, I decided to get started. I grabbed my notebook, a pen, and two sets of pliers.
Teeth come out easier than I’d expected. That’s the first thing I learned. I plucked half a dozen before I got a hold of myself. I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying this—it was all for research—but the teeth were like popping bubble wrap: one is never enough.
Calvin screamed the whole time. At the end, the screams took on a gurgle as air bubbled through the blood. He wept quietly when I stopped to take my notes.
I don’t mind admitting that I was disgusted with him. I hadn’t been sure how he would react, but I didn’t expect crying. Not so early on, anyway. He’d seemed like such a strong man, a stubborn man.
I took my anger out on his fingers. They snapped like twigs. I watched his face closely instead of looking at the bones. I wanted to capture that moment, right when it happened, when the neurons recognized the pain. I stopped after three because his eyes started to glaze. Break time. A little vodka and a nap does the soul good.
He was full of spit and fire when he woke. A little thrill shot through me. Maybe now he would give me what I wanted.
“I need you to channel Calvin-the-spy a bit more,” I told him as I arranged my supplies on the desk. Knives this time. I’d decided to add an old tape recorder. Capturing sound and physical reactions simultaneously had been more difficult than expected.
“You’re a spy—”
“I told you I’m not Calvin!”
He gyrated in the chair, tugging at his bindings. Pure rage contorted his face. His eyes were latticed with red streaks where the capillaries had burst.
I cocked my head to the side as I watched his fit. He didn’t seem to feel the severe pain that had to be emanating from his arm. I began to wonder if there was a maximum threshold for pain in the human body. Is there a point of no return where, once crossed, a person either dies or shuts down all sensations? The theory was interesting but filled me with unease: What if he no longer reacted to the pain? What would happen to my story then? What’s an action scene without any action?
He continued to scream obscenities at me. He wanted to be let go, he wouldn’t tell, I was a bitch and many other things his mother wouldn’t appreciate. For the first time, I doubted myself. My hands began to shake. Was it really necessary to get everything right, every last detail?
I took a deep breath. Art reflects life. No one else had done this, had come this far. A million and one characters have been tortured—have died—in stories throughout history, and I bet not one of those authors had the guts to do what I was doing. My characters would ring true.
I picked up the knife and lunged at him. The blade sunk into his upper arm and struck bone. He howled, but in rage, not torment. He sucked both lips into his mouth and bit down with his remaining teeth; blood streamed. He was breathing heavily through his nose, like a bull ready to charge. Sweat beaded his face, sending a salty misting into the air as he trembled. His eyes, no longer crinkled at the corners, were wide, animalistic.
I pulled the knife out. The wound wasn’t that bad; a couple stitches would probably fix it.
Those wild eyes bored into my soul. I hung my head. I’d gone too far, pushed him way past Calvin-the-spy. The creature sitting in the chair wasn’t human anymore.
I’d created a monster.
Collapsing into my desk chair, I began to cry. My story was ruined.
Calvin’s breathing quieted as my sobs grew louder.
“Are you going to kill me?” His voice was thick, slurred.
I hiccupped. “That’s not how the story ends,” I whined. “You defeat your captors and save the girl.”
He considered this for a moment, then said in a low voice, “Then untie me so I can kill you.”
The only thing I could do was stare at him. His face was so swollen, he was almost unrecognizable. But some semblance of sanity had returned to his gaze, and that was what froze my heart, jolting cold dread through me: The idea was logical to him.
I planned to argue. I was the narrator of this story, not a character. Besides, if I did choose to insert myself, I would obviously be Sheila. I opened my mouth to say all that, but what came out was, “How would you do it?”
His eyes flicked to the line of knives on my desk, a shiny little army of destruction lined up for inspection. I nodded, chewed my lip, and considered. He was right: if I wanted to be true to life—and I so did—he would have to kill me.
I almost let him do it, but there was a hitch I just couldn’t get past: if I died, who would finish the story?
“Well?” he prompted.
I picked up a knife. “I’m going to have to change the ending.”
I sometimes see the red stains on my hands, the guilt that mars me and will for eternity. Those days, I spend hours in the shower trying to scrub the crime away. Sometimes I can, and sometimes I need to crawl back into a bottle. Just for the night, though; a bestselling author can’t be drunk all the time.
Everyone loved the idea of Sheila saving herself after Calvin’s unfortunate demise. My publisher is clamoring for a sequel. I’ve been putting it off for a while now but I can’t anymore. The story is there; I just need a character.
Across the restaurant, absently twirling a steak knife through her fingers like a baton.
I wonder—how would she react?
About the Author
Sarah Gribble physically resides somewhere in Ohio, but where her mind resides depends on the day. She writes sometimes. She bangs her head against the wall other times.
Her short stories have been featured in a variety of online and print publications, most recently CRESCENDO OF DARKNESS, MIRROR DANCE, and the bestselling THE EDGE: INFINITE DARKNESS.
About the Narrator
S. Kay Nash is a writer, editor, and bibliophile. Raised by a cabal of university professors, anthropologists, and irritated librarians, she holds two degrees as magical wards to protect her from being hauled back into the ivory tower. Her short fiction has appeared in See the Elephant, Wicked Words Quarterly, and Road Kill 2: Texas Horror by Texas Writers. Her nonfiction appears at Horror-writers.com and Buzzymag.com.
She lives in Texas with a Mad Scientist and a peaceful contingent of cats and dogs.