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#62

First Birthday




On the morning of her grandson Wendell’s first birthday, Frieda woke up without a voice. The sore throat of the night before was all but gone, but when she tried to speak, her words came out in a gravelly whisper.

Frieda got up to help her daughter Lila get Wendell ready for the day. Lila lost patience with Wendell very easily, especially on school days when she was rushing around trying to find her homework or coordinating outfits with her friends over the phone.

“What’re you and Wendell gonna do for his birthday while I’m at school?” asked Lila. The day was cool and gray. Frieda and Lila were in the front seat of the car Frieda had driven since before Lila was born. Wendell was in his car seat in the back flipping the pages in the only book he liked. It was called Bats Take Turns. Wendell’s favorite part of the book was the beginning when the bats hadn’t yet learned to take turns. He liked the way they argued with each other.

Frieda tried to say, “We’re going to the grocery store and the park,” but it came out in such a ridiculous rasp that Lila laughed at her and said, “I can’t understand you at all, Mom. You’re just going to run some errands, right?”

Frieda smiled and nodded.

“OK, then,” said Lila, getting out of the car at the curb in front of Multioak High School and slinging her bag over her shoulder. “See you at 3, mom. Bye Wendell, be good for grandma.”

Wendell looked up, waved at his mother, and then went back to his book. “My turn!” he said, mimicking the shrill voice Frieda used for the selfish bats when she read to him. “Me first!”

 

Gordon didn’t go to Forton’s Foods with the intention of kidnapping a child. Or maybe he did. He’d been pondering a kidnapping for a while, but he also needed some ginger snaps, tortillas, almond butter. A few other things. If he had gone to the store with the sole intention of kidnapping a child, why would he have gone to the trouble to make a grocery list?

But as he was loading the bags of groceries into his car, a middle-aged woman with dyed-black hair and wearing a royal blue cross country sweatshirt from Multioak High School pushed her cart up to the car next to his. Theirs were the only two cars in the lot. It was a gloomy Tuesday morning, Mr. Forton’s prices were too high for almost everyone in town and, on top of that, his store was located in one of Multioak’s out-of-the-way residential neighborhoods. Most people preferred the Diamond Food with its convenient downtown location and weekly onslaught of coupons tucked into the Multioak Interpreter Tribune. Gordon guessed that Forton’s Foods was probably on its last legs.

There was a little boy riding in the woman’s cart, fixated on a brightly-colored dog-eared book that he held in front of his face with chubby hands. The woman looked a bit too old to have such a young child, but Gordon supposed that stranger things had happened. She nodded a greeting to Gordon and gave him a friendly smile as she lifted the little boy out of the cart and set him in his car seat. Gordon nodded back and pretended to busy himself with arranging his groceries in the back seat of his car. The woman put her grocery bag on the seat next to the child and touched his arm, holding up one finger and mouthing the words “I’ll be right back.” Then she closed the door, turned, and began to push the cart back toward the store. The cart corral was just inside the front entrance, but the woman had a ways to go.

Mr. Forton’s wife was disabled and the Fortons had decided that no disabled customers at Forton’s Foods would ever have to deal with the irritation of arriving to find that all the handicapped parking spots were occupied. Every parking spot along the sidewalk in front of the store was reserved for handicapped customers. The regular parking area was on the far side of a little strip of scraggly bushes on a patch of dirt in the middle of the lot, the closest spot being 25 yards from the entrance.

As the woman pushed her cart through the automatic door and returned it to the corral, it appeared as if someone, probably Mr. Forton behind the deli counter, called to her from inside the store. Gordon saw the woman wave and point to her throat. Then, before Gordon knew what he was doing, he opened the back door of the woman’s car. The little boy looked up at him with mild interest, a crumb of dry cereal stuck to his upper lip. He wasn’t buckled in yet. The woman had just set him in the car seat until she could return to buckle him in, presumably to postpone his discomfort for another minute. Gordon grabbed the boy around the waist, turned and buckled him into the back seat of his own car, and jogged around to the driver’s side door, scrambling into his seat and sticking the key in the ignition without so much as a single nervous jitter. He stopped for a brief moment to turn around and look in the back seat. The child was really there, still clinging to his book, confused but not scared, not even whimpering.

As Gordon backed out the parking space, he saw the middle-aged woman running toward him and waving her hands. Her mouth was open as if she was screaming, but even with his window rolled down, Gordon heard nothing. She looked desperate enough to grab onto the back of the car, so Gordon stamped on the accelerator and careened out onto the street. The last thing Gordon saw in his rearview mirror was the woman standing in the deserted parking lot, watching him go with both hands on her throat and no one running to her aid.

Gordon turned down a residential street and zig-zagged through a quiet neighborhood until he was satisfied that no one was following him.  He pulled over along a curb in front of a half-constructed home in the Trail Head housing development to consider his next move. There were no workers around. The yard was a mud pit criss-crossed with tread marks from heavy machinery.

None of Gordon’s cars were registered in his real name, or even in the same assumed name. He could just leave this one in the garage at the house he was renting and take the boy and a few essential items in the truck. He’d relocated in a hurry and under pressure before. The kid would complicate things, but if he was really this well-behaved, then it would be even less of a problem then Gordon could have reasonably hoped.

“My turn,” said the little boy in the back of the car. Gordon turned around to look at him again. The boy was slouched down on the seat with the loose seatbelt up under his armpits and his book open in front of his face.

Bats Take Turns,” read Gordon.

The boy didn’t acknowledge him.

“Let’s go home and pack,” said Gordon.

“Me first,” said the kid. “No, me first. No, me first.”

 

Frieda sat in her car and sobbed. She closed her eyes and rested her head on the steering wheel and she would have wailed, but the sound that came out of her mouth was just a long, shuddering sigh. She knew she needed to tell the police what had happened, but without a voice she wouldn’t be able to say what she needed to say over her cell phone. She could go back into the grocery store and eventually make herself understood to Mr. Forton and he could call the cops, but the idea of sitting and waiting for them to arrive with Mr. Forton patting her shoulder and offering empty condolences while the two drop-out cashiers stared at her with sad, accusatory eyes filled Frieda with revulsion. She’d have to drive to the police station and try to communicate with a pen and paper.

Frieda took a deep, painful breath to collect herself. When she felt calm enough to drive, she started the car and turned around to make sure there was no one behind her. She almost broke down again when she saw Wendell’s empty car seat, but she bit her lip and managed to keep it together. If she wanted to help Wendell, the worst thing she could do was fall apart. Should she have the police call Lila at school? It wouldn’t help, but Lila was Wendell’s mother. She had a right to know, even if she was irresponsible and resentful of Wendell most of the time. Of course, no matter how many times Lila had forgotten to give Wendell his medicine or shouted at him for doing things that all babies do, she’d never done anything as irresponsible as leaving him alone in an unlocked car in a parking lot so a stranger could just pluck him out and drive away with him. And now that Frieda thought about it, she realized that in her panic and despair she had forgotten to get the license plate number from the kidnapper’s car as he drove away. What had the kidnapper looked like? His face was stamped permanently in her mind but she couldn’t think of the words to describe it. Brown hair. Not very tall. No glasses. Clean shaven.

She was so disgusted with herself that she wanted something terrible to happen to her, some kind of debilitating injury or illness or public castigation. She wished that they still put people in stocks. She deserved to be put into the stocks in the village square where everyone could see her and there’d be a sign nailed to the stocks detailing the extent of her irresponsibility and maybe a switch in a metal pail that passing mothers could strike her with if they felt so inclined, which she assumed many of them would.

This was what she wanted to happen provided the police found Wendell and he was fine and everything turned out all right.

If they never found Wendell or he was hurt in some way, then she wanted to die.

 

As Gordon waited for one of the longest lights in town to turn green, the misgivings began to set in. He didn’t believe in morals at all, really, and he’d committed plenty of crimes against so-called innocent people before, but the more he thought about it, the more he wished he hadn’t crossed the kidnapping line. When he first considered the idea of kidnapping, he’d thought he’d sell the kid. He’d been living on a few thousand he’d conned out of a dumb married woman and another few thousand he’d conned out of her dumber husband in a phony business deal, but the money wouldn’t last forever, even in a small town. An acquaintance of Gordon’s had a friend who knew a guy who’d told him he had a buyer if he ever came across a kid for sale. When Gordon had asked him “how much?” his acquaintance had just said, “a lot,” and knowing this guy, that meant it really was a lot, because this guy was not impressed by sums of money that most normal people would consider to be a lot. So that’s what had originally put the idea in Gordon’s head.

But then the more he’d thought about it, the more he’d thought that if he ever kidnapped a kid, he might keep it, especially if it was a boy. He’d decided he’d like to have a son. Someone to talk to in the car. Someone to whom he could pass on his expertise in various fields. Someone to help him spend his money. Someone to watch his back. Someone to avenge him if his enemies ever got him.

But now, sitting at the light, with the little boy slouched in the back seat, content to just focus on the selfish bats and let the rest of the world take care of itself, Gordon felt his resolve collapsing. It was one thing to take money or possessions from people. They could always get more money and more stuff. Insurance companies would step in. Charitable organizations. Friends and family. Churches. But to take somebody’s kid, well, even if they got another one, it wouldn’t be the same. The new kid might not like Bats Take Turns, for instance, or be so good-natured even while being plucked from his car seat and spirited away by a stranger. And they’d always wonder about the original kid, if he was alive, what had happened to him, where he was, and they’d blame themselves and their lives would be ruined in a way that no money or possession or new kid or kids could ever fix.

Suddenly, Gordon couldn’t stand himself. He couldn’t stand the sight of his own hands on the steering wheel, the smell of himself, the sound of his own breathing. He felt guilty about things he had no business feeling guilty about, things not even remotely connected to the kidnapping, things he’d already been forgiven for, things he’d done to people who clearly deserved it, things he’d done in self-defense, things he’d merely considered doing, things that had passed through his mind only briefly, things about which he’d involuntarily dreamt.

The light finally turned green and Gordon accelerated through the intersection and pulled into the Get N’ Go gas station parking lot. He unbuckled his seat belt and turned around to face the little boy. “Can I see your book, kid? Just for a second?” Gordon eased the book out of the kid’s hands and the kid surrendered without a fuss, his only reaction a jolly “Me first!”

Gordon opened to the front of the book, and there on the inside cover, someone had written the name “Wendell Gibson” in blue pen.

“Stay here,” said Gordon, handing the book back to Wendell. “I’m going to call your mom.” Gordon figured there’d be a few Gibsons in the phonebook, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to call them up and ask them if they had a son named Wendell until he found the right one. On the off chance that he managed to get a hold of Wendell’s family, he’d set up some kind of meeting where he could give Wendell back or leave him somewhere where they could pick him up. If calling Gibsons didn’t work, he’d try something else, maybe an anonymous tip to the cops, but he preferred not to involve the cops unless he had to.

Gordon was relieved to see that the pay phone in the gas station was far enough from the front counter that he wouldn’t have to worry about the attendant overhearing his conversation. There was no one in line for the phone. Actually, Gordon couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen anyone on a payphone anywhere. He flipped through the phonebook until he found the Gs and then dragged his finger down the page until he came to the Gibsons. There were only four listings. He dropped his coins into the slot, dialed the first number, and listened to the ring.

He felt better already.

 

Even through the blur of her tears and the fog of her self-loathing, Frieda recognized the car in the Get N’ Go gas station parking lot across the intersection. It was the one, it was the same one. There was nothing distinctive about it really, but she knew that this was a car that she would never forget, and there it was in the gas station parking lot, just sitting there, only a few miles from where Wendell had been taken.

The light was so slow. Unbearably slow.

Frieda looked both ways, decided she had enough space if she really punched it, and jammed the gas pedal, zipping through the red light as furious drivers squealed their breaks and blasted their horns.

She pulled into the parking lot and rolled up right alongside the kidnapper’s car. The kidnapper was gone, but as Frieda got out of the car, she saw Wendell in the back seat, still reading his book. “Wendell!” she said. He looked up at her and waved. Frieda tried the back door, but it was locked. She looked in the windows and saw that it was the same for all the other doors. She glanced over her shoulder at the gas station, but there was no one coming. Whatever the kidnapper was doing inside, he was still preoccupied for the moment. “Wendell, honey, listen to Grandma. You can hear me, right? Unlock the door, OK Wendell? Unlock the door so we can go see mom?”

Wendell looked at her and said “Me first. My turn.” Then he reached out and casually unlocked the back door, pressing the button with one little finger.

Frieda yanked open the door and snatched Wendell out of the car. She clutched him to her chest and ran around to the other side of her car, opening the door and clipping him into his car seat. As she clambered back into the driver’s seat, Frieda looked once more at the gas station entrance. A young man in a crooked baseball cap came out with an enormous fountain drink in his hand, but there was still no sign of the kidnapper.

As much as Frieda wanted to apprehend the kidnapper, as much as she wanted him to be caught and prosecuted and convicted and ultimately harassed and beaten and stabbed in prison, if she just left right now, no one would ever know what had happened. No one would ever know that while under her watch, she had left Wendell unattended and he had been kidnapped without a fight, without even so much as a scream from her. No one would scold her. Lila wouldn’t shout and cry about what could have happened. Frieda wouldn’t have to surrender the moral high ground to anyone. It was at that moment that she realized her voice had come back when she had spoken to Wendell. When she’d told him to unlock the door, her voice had been clear and audible and familiar. She looked at Wendell in the rearview mirror and tried to say, “Let’s go home,” but all that came out was a strangled croak.

Frieda pulled out of the Get N’ Go parking lot, and Wendell sat safely in his car seat, reading his book as if he knew that life would never offer him anything that mattered more than bats taking turns.

 

When Gordon came out of the gas station, having contacted only four answering machines owned by Gibsons and leaving no messages, the back door of his car was standing open and Wendell was gone. Gordon pounded on the roof of his car with two fists and fought an absurd urge to cry out, “What have I done?” like a remorseful movie villain. His insides felt like cold slush. Why was this happening? He had finally decided to do something good. He had decided to right a horrible wrong and instead of reward, he had made the situation much worse. Wendell Gibson was gone, kidnapped twice in the same day, carried away this time by, well, it could be anyone. Someone cruel, someone monstrous, someone inhuman. There was no way to know.

Gordon knew he couldn’t go to the cops without implicating himself. But if there was any information about kidnapped kids floating around in the criminal underground, Gordon knew how to find it. Bribes, threats, intimidation, violence. They were all in his repertoire and he was ready to employ any or all of them to get Wendell back to his family.

As he got into his car and drove away, the unfamiliar feeling of guilt swelled within him again, propelling him toward the edge of something, a plunge into an unknown chasm. He knew that unless he replaced the guilt with rage, it would consume him. But he could project rage outward. Rage could become action.

Gordon envisioned the trail of unsuspecting people that would lead him to Wendell, just waiting for him to hunt them and hurt them until Wendell was safe in his mother’s arms. It was Gordon’s turn to pursue. It was Gordon’s turn to have a mission.

“My turn,” said Gordon. It was what Wendell would have said. 




Discussion Questions

  • Did you see me?



  • Do you think the title of this story is important beyond the fact that it’s clearly a reference to the Special Bedtime Stories One Year Anniversary Special? I think I’d have a tough time convincing you that it is.



  • Would you rather listen to this story or Bats Take Turns? Don’t answer that.



  • Is Wendell wise or oblivious? How can you tell? What makes you such an expert?



  • What do you think is going to happen to Gordon? Do you think the events of the story will be good for him or bad for him in the long run?



  • Do you think Wendell would be better off being raised as Gordon’s son or Lila’s son?



  • Does this story seem like a 60s screwball comedy to you? In what ways?



  • What’s your stance on guilt? Name some weird stuff you’ve done ‘cause of guilt. Not a very fun activity, is it?