This story is by Joslyn Chase and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Chloroform is passé. Also, Ruben discovered it burns your face. He took out the girl with roofies instead, which presented another set of challenges, but he made it work.
For months, he’d watched Iris play tennis. She’d caught his attention during those early, warm days as the crocuses and daffodils pushed up from the sodden mulch, and he’d monitored her progress through the summer. Her swing grew more powerful, her steps more certain as she dodged and swayed across the court. The legs extending below her tennis skirt, pale and spindly in May, grew tanned and muscular as the weeks passed, her dark blonde hair lightening under the sun’s caress. He thought she looked like the photo negative of what she used to be, except for the perpetual tennis whites.
She was spoiled, of course. They all were, these country club girls. He knew her father was dead and her mother was rich, an interior design maven who commanded exorbitant fees from wealthy clients. He watched Iris simper and cavort with the other privileged youth, but he sensed something different in her, something deeper.
Or maybe he was full of crap. Maybe he just sensed an easier target with a fatter payoff.
The heavy air of late summer pressed around the abandoned cinderblock shed, promising rain to come. When it started, the ping and rattle on the metal roof would drown her cries. He could remove the rag he’d stuffed in her mouth and let her breathe. If she behaved.
All the time he’d been watching her and her friends, he’d been invisible. Clipping hedges, cutting grass, dead-heading the roses, he was beneath their notice, not even human; a machine for the purpose of enhancing their pleasure. These people didn’t go home to a one-room slum apartment or brush their teeth over a cracked sink, stained and stinking of sulfur. They didn’t ration out a bag of potatoes or a pot of beans to last the week.
He’d tried playing by the rules, working to get ahead, but the only thing he could count on was getting stomped down. They’d forced him to this, but even they had little choice in the matter, rag dolls like him, but with finer trappings. One lesson he understood—free choice is an illusion.
He carried a chocolate milkshake in one hand, bagged burger and fries in the other. Most girls like chocolate, he’d noticed. The shed was at the very edge of the property, beyond the swimming pools, tennis courts, golf links, and walking paths. No one ventured this far, and it felt almost like another world as he pushed through the tall weeds and hanging vines.
The building was locked, but he had a key.
“Honey, I’m home,” he said, kicking the door shut and looking at the girl. She was handcuffed to an old iron radiator, hair disheveled, wrists bruised and swollen where she’d been tugging at the cuffs. Her eyes were deep-shadowed and full of loathing. He pulled the rag from her mouth and knew she’d have spit at him if she had a drop of saliva left to her.
“What do you want with me?” Her voice sounded dustier than the rag. He uncuffed one of her hands and held out the milkshake. She batted it against the wall where it splatted, dripping to the floor like a wad of mud.
Ruben felt a spike of heat. He took a breath and let it fade. The milkshake had been a stupid gesture anyway. He sat on an old folding chair, out of her reach, and opened the paper sack, eating her dinner with slow, deliberate bites, ignoring the threats and questions she threw at him. He finished, and brought her the bucket and a roll of paper before stepping out into the freshening wind.
When he returned after emptying the bucket, she looked at him, her face contrite. “My name is Iris.”
“I know who you are.”
“Why’d you take me? Is it because my mom is rich?”
Ruben regarded her silently.
“I know you won’t do anything filthy to me. I can see you’re not like that.”
He snorted, tossing her the tuna sandwich he’d made for his own dinner. She stripped off the wrapper and tore into it, eating fast, talking with her mouth full.
“What I don’t get is why you let me see your face. Does that mean you’re going to kill me?”
Her tone suggested casual curiosity, but Ruben saw fear in the eyes that watched him through the tangled curtain of sun-bleached hair. He rose to leave. He wasn’t sharing his plans with her. Three steps from the door, her voice reached him, small and pleading.
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at the mess she’d made with the milkshake.
“I won’t do that again. I’m sorry.”
He debated. He’d have to give her water, of course, but he thought she deserved to suffer a little first. He walked to the corner of the shed and ran the tap in the utility sink, watching the rusty water run brown before clearing up. He shut it off.
“Please,” she said.
He considered, then rinsed a dirty glass. Filling it with tepid water, he carried it to where she waited and placed it next to her free hand. In that instant, she kicked out her tennis-toned leg and with the force of a pile driver nailed him in the crotch.
Ruben’s world exploded in a boatload of pain.
He returned gradually to awareness, to the ache in his groin, the ice pick tingle of pins and needles in his wrist. Forcing his eyes open, he stared at the convoluted chunk of rusty iron and the cuff which shackled him to it, letting them fall shut again. He remembered writhing in spectacular agony while the girl stepped forward, swinging her racket-toned arm to put him out of his misery. She’d found the key in his pocket, freed herself, and must be long gone by now, alerting the cops, savoring the taste of triumph.
Ruben visualized the end of everything. What a stinking life. The deck was always stacked against him. He was a rat in a trap—always had been.
It was so quiet. The rain had stopped and only occasional drops, flung by the wind from an overhanging oak tree, plinked down upon the metal roof. No sirens. No running footsteps. He opened his eyes.
The girl stared at him from the folding chair, her arms crossed over her chest, eyes like blue ice, narrowed and calculating.
“What were you going to do to me?” she demanded, rising and coming closer, taking care to stay out of range.
Ruben groaned and closed his eyes again. Two minutes ago, he’d dreaded the arrival of the police. Now, he wished they were here. He curled himself into a ball, protecting his tender parts, wondering what she planned to do to him. The absurdity of the situation struck him. How many times he had wanted to swap positions with her—and now he had.
He laughed, and two pink spots sprang up on her cheeks. She leaned her head close to his and screamed. “What were you going to do to me?”
He winced and relented. After all, he was uniquely qualified to understand her need to know.
“I wouldn’t hurt you.” He hesitated. “Or do anything filthy to you. Like you said, it’s about your mother’s money.”
“How do you know my mother would pay to get me back?”
Ruben’s eyebrows shot up. “What else would she do? You’re her daughter.”
Iris snorted, but the look on her face was bleak. He’d seen an expression like that before, and his aunt’s face came to him, pinched and suffering, at his uncle’s funeral. It was the look of bereavement and longing. The poor little rich girl didn’t have it all, apparently.
“And then what? Whether my mom paid—or not—how were you going to wrap this up? Were you going to kill me?”
Ruben spluttered, protesting, but she cut him off. “Don’t bother giving me that indignant bull crap. ‘I may be a kidnapper, but I would never stoop to murder.’”
She mimicked him in a pompous voice and he flushed. Those weren’t the exact words he would’ve used, but close enough.
“I had a good escape plan.”
Her gaze flew to the ceiling and back again, a derisive smile twisting her lips.
“You’d have never got away.”
Ruben reflected that she was probably right. Life always punched him in the face.
“The real question,” Iris said, pacing the room and looking thoughtful, “is what am I going to do to you?”
He watched her, his palms growing sweaty, heart beating fast. The rush of his blood thrummed in his eardrums until he could stand it no longer.
“What are you going to do to me?”
Her pacing halted, and she turned to face him square on, just out of kicking distance. Her eyes burned into his.
“Not one damn thing.”
She spun and was gone, leaving Ruben with only the echo of the slamming door.
A fly buzzed against the grimy glass of a window high above him, the relentless drone like a power drill on his sanity. How much time had passed? An hour? Six hours? His judgment was obviously impaired. She’d asked him for water and in that moment he’d almost felt like he had a choice, like he could make a decision that mattered. Illusion. That deed—all his deeds—only sowed and watered the seeds of his destruction.
Had she gone to the police, or did she intend to take her revenge by letting him rot here? The room darkened by degrees and the droning of the fly was replaced by the tiny outboard motor hum of a mosquito. Cold seeped into him from the hard, cement floor. Wallowing in misery, Ruben fell asleep.
When he awoke, the room was glazed in the weak light of morning. He was hungry, he ached all over, and his bladder cried out for attention. He extended a foot, hooked the bucket handle, and dragged it closer, jostling against a glass of water and spilling half of it onto the cement.
A glass of water. It hadn’t been there when she left. He stared at it. It was the same dirty glass he’d offered her, and it was half empty. Or was it half full? Something clinked against the glass as he pulled it toward him. He peered down into the cloudy contents.
The key to the cuffs lay at the bottom of the glass.
Weeks passed, and Ruben waited. He was tense and jumpy, expecting the police to show up and arrest him or thugs to show up and break his legs.
He reported to work as he always had. He clipped hedges, mowed grass, and tended roses, but he swore people could see him now. Sometimes they even greeted him or smiled.
He watched the snobby girls and wondered how he’d never noticed their uncertainty, how hard they worked to appear nonchalant, how slender the stalks of self-assurance to which they clung.
He looked always for Iris. Once he thought he saw her playing tennis, but when he got closer, he could tell it wasn’t her. He listened to the measured pock pock as the players swung their rackets, connecting with the balls which fell into their court. Where was Iris? Was she happy? Had she dealt with her own demons? She’d certainly dealt with his.
She’d brought him a simple glass of water. There were so many other choices she could have made, but she’d chosen to give him a second chance. As he’d once done for her. He’d thought he was sowing the seeds of his destruction by that act, but the plant that sprouted up was his salvation, and a simple glass of water contained the key.