He found the phone under a heap of black socks and answered. “This is Dr. Croost. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Dr. Croost,” said the caller, a young man. “Do you remember me?”
“Not by voice alone,” said Dr. Croost. “Perhaps if you gave me a name?”
“It’s Alex Youngley. I was in your Remedial Introduction to Basic Composition class. Twice, actually.”
“Ah, of course,” said Dr. Croost. He remembered Alex as a mild, lethargic young man seemingly incapable of success.
On the television, a reporter named Sabrina Hawkes was interviewing a police officer who was shorter than she was. The officer wore a bullet-proof vest and helmet. “It gets really tricky in situations like this where there’s a hostage,” said the officer. “When there’s no hostage, well, the perpetrator just doesn’t have much leverage. That’s barely a standoff.”
The camera cut back to the stately, two-story brick home where the two perpetrators, whose names had not yet been revealed, were holed up with their hostage or hostages. The curtains were drawn and it was impossible to tell what was going on inside.
On the phone, Alex said, “I know this is going to sound strange Dr. Croost, but I’m calling to tell you that some of your mail was delivered to my house on accident. I don’t know how since we don’t live by each other and our names aren’t similar, but it does look kind of important. When I got it, I was trying to think how I could get it to you and then I remembered you’d put your phone number on the syllabus for your class and sure enough, I still had it.”
“All right,” said Dr. Croost. “That’s fine, Alex. Now isn’t the most convenient time to come get it, but we’ll figure something out. Just let me jot down your address and phone number.”
“No,” said Alex. “It has to be now because, like I said, it looks important and also, I’m leaving town for…I don’t know how long, so yeah, it has to be now.”
Dr. Croost sighed and gave the televised standoff a longing look. If he hurried, maybe he wouldn’t miss anything exciting. “All right,” he said. “Give me your address and I’ll be right over.”
Dr. Croost listened to coverage of the standoff on the radio on the drive to Alex’s house. Authorities still didn’t know how many hostages were inside nor who any of them were. There was still no word on the perpetrator’s demands, but the authorities had been in telephone contact with them since the standoff began. The demands were rumored to be bizarre, but none of the reporters were willing to speculate, possibly out of a fear of appearing bizarre themselves.
When Dr. Croost pulled into Alex’s driveway, it looked as if there was no one home. The house was dark and the lawn was shaggy under a thin blanket of brown leaves. Dr. Croost went up to the front door, rang the bell, and waited. He was about to give up and go home when Alex, gaunt and pale, opened the front door and said, “Oh good, you’re here. Come on in. The package is in the kitchen.”
Dr. Croost stepped inside and Alex closed the door behind him. The living room was unlit except for the afternoon sunlight coming in through the curtain-less front windows. There was no furniture in the room except for a half-inflated air mattress on the floor and two metal folding chairs with an ashtray on the floor between them.
“Have you lived here long?” asked Dr. Croost.
“Not really,” said Alex and he reached behind his back into the waistband of his jeans, pulled out a handgun, and pointed it at Dr. Croost. “Ray,” he shouted. “Come up here! The hostage is here!”
“A hostage?” said Dr. Croost, clasping his trembling hands in front of him. “Come on, Alex, you don’t want to –”
“Yes I do,” said Alex. “How else do we make people listen? Ray! Where are you? Come help with the hostage!”
A distant voice called, “I’m in the basement watching the standoff on TV! Bring the hostage down here!”
Alex gritted his teeth in annoyance and shouted, “Forget about that standoff! We have our own hostage now! Come up here so we can call the cops and issue our demands!”
“Alex,” said Dr. Croost, eyeing the gun in Alex’s hand. “I don’t know what you want, but this is not the way to accomplish anything.”
“We got the idea from the other standoff,” said Alex. “Those guys got a hostage and now everyone’s listening to them.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Croost. “But Alex, it isn’t going to work out for them. No matter what they’re promised, as soon as they come out they’ll be arrested and go to jail. Their demands won’t be met.”
Alex shook his head. “Then why would anyone do it?”
“It’s a senseless act born of desperation,” said Dr. Croost. “It only makes things worse for a person. Standoffs always end badly for everyone.”
Alex appeared to be listening as the barrel of the gun began to droop towards the floor, but just as he seemed about to say something, a mop-haired young man in denim shorts and a generic replica football jersey that simply read “Team” on the front over the number 8 came into the living room from the kitchen.
“Ray,” said Alex. “I was just talking to the hostage.” He waved the gun at Dr. Croost. “He says hostage situations never work out. He says the people who take the hostages don’t get their demands, they just get arrested.”
Ray frowned and looked at Dr. Croost. “No way, man. Of course the hostage is gonna say something like that. Why would you listen to the hostage?”
“I don’t know,” said Alex. “He’s a professor, remember? He’s smart.”
“Maybe,” said Ray. “But it’s too late ‘cause I already called the cops and told them we have a hostage and we’re going to be issuing demands later and if the demands aren’t met the hostage will die.”
The three men looked at each other.
“We’re not really gonna kill you,” said Alex. “But they have to think we will.”
“What’s to keep me from running away?” asked Dr. Croost.
“Well, we’ll shoot you if you run,” said Ray. “But not bad enough to kill you. Where do you want us to shoot you if it comes to that?”
“Just let me go,” said Dr. Croost. “If I’m gone before the cops show up, you’ll only be in trouble for a false alarm. I can even tell them it was a misunderstanding.”
“No way,” said Ray. “Keep the gun on him, Alex. The cops’ll be here any second. We have to move down to the basement so we don’t get shot through the windows.”
From outside, there came the sound of car doors slamming. Then a man’s voice, amplified through a megaphone, said, “This is the police. If you really have hostages in there, let ‘em go.”
Ray walked over to the front window and looked outside. “What? There’s only two cops out there. And no reporters. What’s going on?”
Dr. Croost edged toward the door but Alex raised the gun and said, “Stop. You’re our hostage.”
“OK,” said Dr. Croost. “But-”
“Just stop,” said Alex. “It’s too late. We’re in this now.”
“I see you in the window,” said the cop through the megaphone. “You’re not fooling anyone. Stop screwing around.”
Ray put his hands on his hips and snorted. “The rest of the cops and reporters must still be on the way. But if they’re not here in five minutes, I’m making another call.”
Dr. Croost felt tears welling up in his eyes. He was a sensitive man and he often cried at least a little when he was overwhelmed.
“All right,” said Alex. “Everyone to the basement.”
The other standoff was getting huge. The police had erected barricades on both ends of the block to keep the crowds of curious spectators as far away from the house as possible. On TV, it looked as if every police officer in Multioak was at the standoff except for the two in front of Alex’s house.
Alex and Dr. Croost sat on an old couch in Alex’s basement and watched the bigger standoff on Alex’s grimy television. Ray was in the adjacent laundry room talking on the phone to one of the two cops out front. The only light in the basement came from a few small, dirt-smeared windows just below the basement ceiling and one lamp without a lampshade plugged into the same outlet as the TV and sitting next to it on the floor.
Dr. Croost tried to focus on the standoff on TV to keep from worrying about his own plight, but it was hard when he kept hearing Ray say things like, “What’s it going to take for you to take us seriously? Does someone need to get hurt? You haven’t even asked us what our demands are!”
Dr. Croost looked out of the corner of his eye at Alex, who had set the gun down on the arm of the couch and was watching the TV with a brooding expression on his face.
“Why did you choose me?” asked Dr. Croost.
Alex jerked in his seat and seemed surprised to see Dr. Croost sitting next to him. His hand moved to rest on the gun. “Uh, what?”
“Why did you want me to be your hostage?”
“Because,” said Alex. “You’re the only important person Ray or I know.”
“Why do you think I’m important?” asked Dr. Croost.
“You’re a professor,” said Alex. “You’re educated. People call you ‘doctor’ instead of ‘mister.’”
“I’m a professor at a community college,” said Dr. Croost.
“But all the other people we know are just losers,” said Alex. “Drop-outs and ex-cons and losers and people like that. You tuck in your shirts, you wear glasses everywhere. You’re like a real hostage.”
Dr. Croost couldn’t help but feel a bit flattered. He found that his mood was improving. He was like a real hostage.
Ray came back into the room with the phone in his hand, visibly angry. “Look at all those cops,” he said, pointing to the scene on the TV. “And they send us the junior varsity. What’s so great about that standoff that they need that many cops? Do they even know how many hostages there are yet? Have they even released the names of the perpetrators?”
“No,” said Alex. “The cops are being real tight-lipped about everything.”
“We need to get those reporters over here,” said Ray. “Those two cops upstairs are useless. They can’t meet our demands. I’m half-tempted to go shoot a couple shots over their heads so they get scared and call for backup. Man, our own neighbors don’t even care enough to come out and rubberneck.”
“Did you tell them who our hostage is?” asked Alex. “Did you tell them he’s a doctor?”
“Yeah,” said Ray. “I told them.”
Ray shrugged in frustration. “The cop I talked to isn’t even a real negotiator. He wouldn’t listen to our demands. He just kept telling me that if we gave up now, he and his partner would go back to the other standoff and pretend ours never happened.”
Dr. Croost sat up straight, a hazy cloud of dust wafting out of the couch. “What do you mean? They’d pretend it never happened? Did they offer you anything if you’d let me go?”
“No,” said Ray. “The cop I talked to just said to stop wasting his time.”
“Then…then…just take the deal,” said Dr. Croost. “And we can all go home and no one will get hurt or get in trouble.” He did his best to not sound as if he was pleading. He wanted to sound like a reasonable man reasoning with two other reasonable men.
“Hey,” said Alex, pointing at the TV with his gun.
Sabrina Hawkes was standing among a crowd of attractive girls by the police barricades. The girls were waving signs that said things like, “You captured my heart!” and “I’ll be your hostage!”
One girl with red curly hair and an off-putting shade of pink lipstick was talking into the microphone, breathless with excitement. “I don’t know who’s in there, but whoever they are, they’re just so dangerous. They just take what they want, you know? The odds are against them, but they won’t give up. I’m all about that!”
Then all the girls started screaming and laughing and waving their signs and Sabrina had to throw it back to the studio where the anchors chuckled and shook their heads.
Dr. Croost looked at Alex and then Ray and his hope of release dwindled to nothing.
“We have to get noticed,” said Ray.
Alex nodded and a competitive fire appeared in his eyes that Dr. Croost had certainly never seen him display in the classroom.
Everyone trooped back upstairs. Ray took Dr. Croost out on the front porch with the gun to his head to prove to the cops that they really had a hostage, really had a gun, and were willing to at least pose in a way that made it appear as if they were willing to use the gun on the hostage, although Ray and Alex had explained to Dr. Croost that he wasn’t actually in danger. Alex watched through the front window.
“I’ll do it!” shouted Ray. “I’ll put a bullet right through his head!”
“Who is that?” asked the cop with the megaphone.
“He’s Dr. Croost,” shouted Ray.
The cops looked at each other and shrugged.
“He’s a professor,” shouted Ray.
“Well, whoever he is,” said the cop with the megaphone, “let him go so we can all get on with our lives. You’re keeping us from the important work over at the standoff.”
“We’re a standoff too!” shouted Ray, and he pulled Dr. Croost back inside and slammed the door.
“I wouldn’t really shoot you in the head,” said Ray. “Probably just in the leg, or, I don’t know, you never told me where you want to get shot if we have to shoot you.”
“I suppose my left foot,” said Dr. Croost. “But please don’t shoot me.”
Then everyone went back down to the basement and Ray got on the phone again.
Back in his place on the couch, Dr. Croost heard Ray in the laundry room saying, “We want our jobs with the Roads Department back and we want you to do whatever it takes to get a news crew over here to give our standoff fair coverage.”
Dr. Croost looked at Alex with an expression of frank disbelief. “Are those really your only demands?”
Alex nodded. “That Roads Department gig was a good job, man. My alarm didn’t go off six mornings and they fired me.”
“Why didn’t you get a new alarm?” asked Dr. Croost.
Alex didn’t appear to understand the question.
“My point,” said Dr. Croost, “is that there have to be easier ways to get your job back than holding me hostage and bargaining with my life.”
“The thing is,” said Alex, “after they fired me, they caught me and Ray trying to jackhammer some stuff that they didn’t want us to jackhammer. Or anyone to jackhammer, for that matter. They didn’t want that stuff jackhammered at all.”
“Well, all right,” said Dr. Croost. “So you burned that bridge. That’s life. Sometimes you just have to accept the consequences for your actions and move on.”
“I will,” said Alex. “If this standoff doesn’t work.”
On the TV, an expert of uncertain qualifications was weighing in on the other standoff. He was seated at an empty desk in front of an empty bookshelf. The film crew’s light gleamed off of his bare, sloped forehead.
“Standoffs,” he said, “appeal to something that dwells inside all of us. The mounting suspense, the impossible odds, the mystery, the romance, the grand pageantry of it all. Now consider the fact that Multioak hasn’t had a significant standoff in over a decade and further consider that this particular standoff is taking place in an upper middle-class neighborhood and you have a recipe for a surefire phenomenon.” He stopped talking and, a moment later, closed his mouth.
Dr. Croost looked up and saw Ray standing behind the couch and watching the TV with the phone in his hand by his side.
“What did the cops say?” asked Alex.
“I don’t know,” said Ray. “They said they’re ‘looking into things.’ They said they’d call me back.” Alex and Ray looked at each other and said nothing, but something passed between them that Dr. Croost found heart-breaking. His life hadn’t turned out how he’d hoped either, but he certainly had it better than these two. He had a job, the respect of several of his peers. He was productive, if not on a large scale. No one actively disliked him.
“Guys,” said Dr. Croost. “It just wasn’t meant to be. The other standoff was first and, much as I hate to say it, yes, there’s a class issue at play here as well.”
“So you want us to just give up?” asked Alex. He looked hurt and vulnerable. “Our standoff will just, like, fizzle out and no one will even know it happened.”
“I understand that your pride is hurt,” said Dr. Croost. “But sometimes you-”
“No,” said Ray. “We can still turn this around. We just need to get the word out.”
“But what is it that you want now?” asked Dr. Croost. “Is this still about getting your jobs at the Roads Department back? Or is it about competing for attention with the other standoff?”
“They’re connected,” said Alex, standing up and pointing at the TV. “It’s all connected.” He said it like he was uttering a profound and subtle truth. He didn’t have the gun in his hand anymore but it might have been back in his waistband. Dr. Croost had lost track of which of his captors had the gun.
The phone rang in Ray’s hand. He answered, gave a few one-syllable answers to questions Dr. Croost couldn’t hear, and then hung up, grinning. “They’re sending a reporter to the door to interview us,” said Ray. “I promised we wouldn’t take the reporter hostage, but I suppose we could. That might help our cause.”
“Are they sending a camera crew too?” asked Alex, perking right up.
“I assume so,” said Ray. “They’re going to want footage, right?” He turned to Dr. Croost. “I guess we matter a little more than you thought. Thanks for the support. Really.”
The doorbell rang.
“Stay here,” Alex said to Dr. Croost. “If the camera crew wants to film you, we’ll have them do it down here. We’ll probably bind and gag you too, just for the shot.”
Then Alex and Ray galloped up the stairs and left Dr. Croost sitting untended on the couch. Dr. Croost couldn’t find a remote so he stood up and walked over to the TV to turn down the volume. Then he walked to the foot of the stairs and listened to what was happening upstairs.
“But we wanted a TV reporter,” said Ray. “We don’t care about newspapers. No one does.”
A voice Dr. Croost didn’t recognize said something too quietly for him to understand.
Then Alex said, “But we didn’t think we’d need to, you know, say we didn’t want a newspaper reporter. We thought it’d be obvious.”
“Yeah,” said Ray. “We consider this demand unmet.”
The reporter said something else but Dr. Croost didn’t wait to hear how Ray and Alex responded. With both of his captors upstairs, this was his chance to look around. It was clear that they bore him no ill will. In fact, he thought it plausible that they actually liked him. Still, once the reporter finished his interview, word would get out and people who Dr. Croost knew would worry about him. Co-workers, for instance, or the small handful of neighbors with whom he occasionally exchanged pleasantries. And as long as he was a hostage, there was a chance that something could go wrong. What if, for instance, the police tried to storm the house and he was hit by a stray bullet?
Dr. Croost hurried into the laundry room. There he saw a small window above the dryer. It was just below the basement ceiling and it led out to a dirt-filled window well. Dr. Croost climbed up onto the dryer and, ducking to keep from hitting his head on the ceiling, he unlocked the window and pushed it open. It was a tight fit and he was neither an athletic nor a limber man, but he managed to squeeze the upper half of his body through the window and then shift around so that he was in a sitting position in the window well with his legs dangling down into the basement. Then he scooted backwards, reached up to grab onto the top edge of the window well, and hoisted himself up and out into Alex’s back yard, empty except for a cockeyed clothesline. He was a hostage no longer.
Dr. Croost walked around to the front of the house and approached the two cops who were leaning against the hood of their squad car, listening to the radio coverage of the other standoff, and chatting, neither of them paying much attention to Alex’s house despite the fact that the newspaper reporter had yet to return. The megaphone was sitting behind the cops on the hood of the car. When the cops saw Dr. Croost walking across the yard toward them, they stopped talking. Only one of them was wearing a bullet-proof vest. The other hadn’t bothered.
The cop without the vest spoke first. “Can we help you, sir?” By his voice, Dr. Croost guessed that he’d been the one using the megaphone.
“I’m the hostage,” said Dr. Croost.
“Hostage?” asked the cop with the vest. His left eye was a little lazy. He had the longest hair Dr. Croost had ever seen on a cop, which was still not very long.
“Yes,” said Dr. Croost. “The hostage.” He pointed at Alex’s house. “I just escaped out of the laundry room window.”
The cops looked at each other. Then the one with the vest said, “No you’re not. We just saw the hostage a little while ago. He was taller. Darker hair. His shirt was more yellowish.”
“No,” said Dr. Croost. “That was me. I’m Dr. Croost.”
The cop without the vest snorted. “You’re a doctor?”
“No,” said Dr. Croost. “It simply means that I have a doctorate in-”
“You know what, sir? Just move along, OK? We’re trying to monitor a situation.”
“But I’m trying to tell you,” said Dr. Croost. “There is no longer a situation here.”
“We know,” said the cop without the vest. “We’re monitoring the real standoff on the radio until we can think of a way to get out of this pointless assignment and get back over there. Now stop pestering us.”
“What about the hostage?” asked Dr. Croost.
The cop with the vest shook his head, his face ugly with disdain. “When a grown man won’t take action to free himself from the clutches of a couple of copycat fakers like we’ve got here, then that man’s as bad as the ones who took him hostage. Maybe worse. He’s a born hostage.”
When Ray and Alex came back down to the basement, Dr. Croost was waiting for them on the couch, a fresh scrape on his forehead from a mishap that occurred while crawling back in through the laundry room window. He could tell by their faces that the interview had not gone well. “He wasn’t even a real newspaper reporter,” said Alex. “Just some guy who owed one of the cops a favor posing as a newspaper reporter.”
“Guys,” said Dr. Croost, his mouth dry, his eyes watering. “You have to give them some action. Some real action.”
“We tried,” said Alex, flopping down onto the couch and sending a cloud of dust towards the TV, which was showing yet another unchanged exterior shot of the other standoff’s house. “Why is this muted?”
“You didn’t try,” said Dr. Croost. “You tried to fake it, but you didn’t really take action.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Ray. “Go ahead. We’re out of ideas.”
The afternoon had become early evening and things were changing.
Neighbors had come out of their houses to stand on their lawns and take pictures with their camera phones and yell at their children to stay inside. Dogs were barking.
“This is only beginning,” shouted Alex.
As Alex and Ray dragged Dr. Croost back inside from the front porch, his ears ringing, his foot leaving a bright trail of blood on the cement, pain roaring up his leg, he saw the cop without a vest watching with his hand on his sidearm and his mouth hanging open while his partner shouted into his radio. “We have a situation over here! A real situation!” Soon, there would be sirens, there would be cameras, there would be interest and attention and genuine concern.
There was hope for this standoff yet.