Alec Nortan © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Beep beep beep.
Josh stopped the shrill wake-up call with a brusque slap on the top of the clock radio, a red and blue plastic cube he’d had for as long as he could remember. He hopped out of bed and walked to the bathroom for the shower he needed to make his brain work again. One perk of having rich parents: all the bedrooms in the house had their own bathroom attached. His wasn’t the biggest nor the fanciest, but it had all the equipment he required. And it was needed, judging by how much time his sister spent in hers. If they’d had to share one, he’d be late to school every day. Probably even late for lunch…
It had gotten a little better lately. A boyfriend seemed to be a good enough incentive for her to rush around.
Josh groaned at the thought and opened the closet to choose what he would wear that day. Not that he had much choice. His closet was big, bigger than his bathroom even, but most of the shelves he looked at were desperately empty. His parents might be rich, but they believed that a boy his age had to learn how to be independent. They had stopped buying him clothes three years ago when he had turned fourteen. His birthday present had been five hundred bucks and an interview for a job after school, which he refused to go to. And of course the news that, from then on, if he wanted something, he would have to pay for it with his own money. All he would get would be a roof over his head, food, school tuition, and a few basics, although all these luxuries were not free. His father had set a monthly rent that Josh had to pay.
Josh didn’t even try to haggle. He knew it would be hopeless. His father’s threats were never empty ones, and when he made a decision, there was no way to sway him. So, instead, Josh cut down on all his unnecessary spending. He stopped going out with his friends, as booze and gas weren’t free. His taste for designer clothes got crushed too. The only expense he did not give up was the little gifts for the girlfriend he was dating then—without them, he knew she would leave him, and he needed her around even if their relationship was a fraud. It was a cover-up to hide the real him from everyone, girlfriend included. No one could learn about his sexual preferences. It would only make everything worse.
Despite his efforts, the money his parents had given him was gone before he noticed it. He eventually got the job his father had referred him to, and his first paycheck came as a real relief, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from having to choose between food and clothes a week later. The need for new underwear and shirts was too urgent, and he decided he could skip a few meals.
Josh learned the hard way, but he learned. As he outgrew things or wore them out, the heaps of branded clothes were slowly replaced by much cheaper versions, and only when necessary. He stopped buying his girlfriend presents and, unsurprisingly, got dumped. At least she had the decency not to lie about the reason why she did it. Josh’s situation didn’t get worse for losing her. If anything, it improved. He didn’t have to force himself to buy ridiculously expensive gifts anymore, and as he was now working, he didn’t need another alibi. He was simply too busy to get into another relationship.
He’d never had any reason to be popular at school. He wasn’t good at sports; he was average looking; his grades were not the best. He had never cared about all that before: his parents were rich, and at school, that alone opened a lot of doors. Doors that closed again one after another when his access to a seemingly endless amount of money vanished. Almost overnight, he lost his social rank and merged into the anonymous mass.
He chose gray cargo pants and a faded blue T-shirt. The cuts weren’t great, but time had given the fabric a slightly worn-out touch that he liked. The pants would never compare to a pair of the designer jeans he used to wear, but he didn’t look too bad in them. A little gel to smooth his short-cut brown hair, and he was decent enough to start the day.
“Morning.” Josh kissed both his parents, grabbed some bread and an apple, and sat at the table to eat them.
“You’re up early,” his mother pointed out.
“He’s being responsible. He needs to earn his keep!” His father answered her without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
Josh put on a smile that fell short of reaching his eyes. His parents were too absorbed in their own tasks to notice.
“I’ll be home late tonight. We’re doing an inventory. I volunteered to put in some extra hours.”
This time, his father glanced at Josh with an appreciative smile. “That’s a sound initiative. A little extra cash is always good.”
“If you earn enough, you can get yourself a car,” Elaine commented with a little too much cheer in her voice for Josh’s taste.
Josh sighed. “Mom, a few more hours won’t earn me enough money for a car, even a cheap one. And, even if they did, they wouldn’t pay the insurance and the fuel.”
“Well, if you can’t buy yourself one, get a friend to pick you up, like your sister.”
Josh gritted his teeth. “I have to go, or I’ll miss the bus.”
Josh was one of the few students stepping out of the yellow school bus, and definitely the oldest. He ignored the few stares his transportation choice still attracted—people should have gotten used to it by now, and most of them had, but a few of his former friends still looked at him as if he were a putrid pile of dung. At first, when Josh had lost his place among his social circle, most of them had simply ignored him, but a few had insulted him, as if he had abused their trust all these years. Some students he had never talked to before gloated openly at his misfortune. Then things had slowly settled down. What remained, like the dark stares, Josh had gotten used to.
The parking lot was slowly filling with brand new, shiny cars of all types and colors. He walked with purpose past the first row of cars, then the next, and the next, heading for the austere building on the other side. Just as he reached the entrance, a red Audi, roaring louder than all the other cars, stopped with a frenzy of screeching tires. Josh turned around to stare at it with disdain, knowing full well who had just made their theatrical entrance.
A boy, the archetype of the popular jock, came out of it. Cooper had wavy blond hair, a cinema-bright smile, and the kind of clothes Josh couldn’t afford anymore. He was also a head taller than Josh, played on the football team, and had about as much brain as brawns. It was only natural that every girl at school was infatuated with him. Even a few guys. Name a girl, he just had to smile at her to get her if he felt like it. Rumors about him kept flooding the school: which girl had been dumped, or how many of them he was dating at the same time… All the chatter died when, a few months ago, Cooper had decided to become a one-woman-only guy and settle down into a long-term relationship.
Cooper walked around the car and opened the passenger door. A girl came out of the car. She was slender, and knew how to choose her tight-fitting, designer dress to outline her figure and attract the attention of every man around. She was slightly smaller than Josh, and had long, wavy brown hair the same color as his, except hers looked much shinier. She pushed a hand through it, throwing it back in pretty much the same way a Hollywood actress would do for a shampoo commercial. Any other girl would get laughed at for that, but she made it look natural and cute. She was aware her hair was one of her best assets, and she knew how to play that card.
In her electric blue dress and her high heels, with her perfect make-up and her perfect boyfriend, anyone might judge her shallow. She wasn’t, and Josh knew that for certain. He knew about everything there was to know about Cherry—she was his sister, after all, although everyone seemed to have forgotten that fact when he suddenly lost his wealth.
Something he ignored was why she had picked Cooper when she could have chosen anyone else. Tough luck.
She saw Josh, and a thin smile crossed her face. She made a small hand gesture that he returned. Except that she did so much more ostentatiously. Cooper caught sight of him and frowned, clearly unhappy.
Josh smiled, looking straight at his sister’s boy toy, as if to taunt him. They held each other’s glare until Cherry broke their link by kissing Cooper. Josh turned around and headed toward his math class.
He entered the neo-classical building through modern glass doors. Inside, the bright, wide halls brimmed with packs of noisy students. He ignored them, walking past without so much as a hi from them. He ignored them, and the few comments they threw at him. Some of those people used to be his friends. Used to. As for new friends, between school and his job, he didn’t have time to socialize.
“Josh! Your article on the new city park is going to make it into our next edition. Will you come to the meeting today?”
Josh stopped and faced Garry. As the editor of the student newspaper, he was one of the few students Josh still interacted with. He was small and almost sickly thin, but he knew how to dress, though not in expensive clothes, and how to make his hair all spiky, which made him cute. Not that Josh was interested. Even if he had been, he couldn’t have allowed himself to try anything. Not now, and not even when he was popular. Garry also had more energy than anyone Josh knew.
“Sorry, Garry. I have to work again,” he grumbled.
Garry shrugged, still smiling. “No problem. Just write another article for next week. We’ll also have to find a new headline topic. Try to think about it,” he added, turning away.
Garry did a double-take, obviously surprised by the tired tone. “Are you okay?”
Josh walked away. “Yeah. Just got a long day ahead of me.”
“Here are your essays.” Professor Haltman winced, as if the mere contact with his students’ papers inflicted physical pain on him. He was tall and lanky, and between his thin-rimmed glasses and white hair, he looked like he should have retired years ago, though he was probably no older than fifty. “You may consider learning about the USSR a waste of time, but, to your utter disappointment I’m sure, I don’t. Russia plays an important role in the world we’re living in, and Khrushchev contributed to its history.”
He deliberately stepped in front of the tables on the front row, slapping the tests in front of the students and announcing their grades to the whole classroom. He then proceeded to do the same with the next row of students. D was by far his favorite letter. Josh knew it before he chose this course: getting a B was a miracle and getting an A unheard of. On the bright side, it was about equally difficult to get an F. The usual opinion among the students was that Professor Haltman believed if his students got perfect grades it meant he was too lenient, and if one failed the course, he would get sacked.
Unsurprisingly, Jessica Plender got a B minus, and exchanged smiling glances with everyone around.
Haltman resumed his litany of Cs and Ds.
“And there we are! Josh!”
Josh looked up expectantly and discovered that, for once, his teacher wasn’t frowning.
“Last September, when I saw your name on my list of students, I made a bet with myself about how long it would take before I wrote an F at the top of your paper.”
A few laughs erupted around the classroom.
“And now, this!” He held a paper with Josh’s name clearly visible on it above his head for everyone to see.
Josh tried to read his grade, but the professor hid it under his thumb.
Haltman put the sheets down on Josh’s table, but to Josh’s annoyance, kept his hand on the grade and smirked. “This proves everything’s possible.” He straightened up.
Josh looked down at his essay. At the top was an A. He stifled a snort and smiled.
“The first A I’ve given for a very long time,” Haltman announced to a stunned audience. “See what can be achieved through hard work. Six months ago, Josh was bound to fail in just about every course. He worked hard and has dramatically improved his grades. Now you know what to do to get an A.”
Everyone stared at Josh, most with incredulity, a few with disdain. To answer everyone, he looked up at his teacher and smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes, though, and lacked the pride or happiness it was supposed to carry.
Mr. Haltman had already moved to the next student, resuming his briefly interrupted flow of criticism.
Josh sighed and turned around to smile at Keisha. “Yup, that’s me.”
“Dennis and I have finished our part. Do you want us to help you?”
He shook his head. “Thanks. I only have those boxes left. It won’t take long. An hour at most. I guess after that the inventory will be over.”
Dennis arrived, stretching and yawning. “Amen to that! If you ask me, we’re not paid nearly enough for this. Ruining an otherwise perfect evening. I can’t believe we missed Skull’s party for a lousy couple of bucks.”
Keisha rolled her eyes, opening one of the boxes. “That guy’s the biggest dork I’ve ever seen.”
“He might be a dork, but he knows how to throw a party. Remember Halloween?”
Skull was one of Josh’s former friends. Well, not quite a friend. More of an acquaintance. Even then, Josh had thought he was a dork. His real name was Barry Heerwood, but he owed his nickname to a concussion he got during his first football match. When he woke up in the hospital a couple of hours later, someone said he had a thick skull, and it stuck. Others said that, thick or not, he could break his skull without any risk of damage to the brain, though they wouldn’t dare say it in front of him. The incident got him enough notoriety to get into the popular club. To stay there, he threw a huge party at his parents’ house about once a month. Money wasn’t an issue for him, and each party was the event of the month, the highlight of it taking place at midnight. No one knew beforehand what would happen, but it was always something spectacular, from magicians performing to a pop star coming to sing their hits.
Josh looked at his watch. Half past eleven. “You can go. If you leave now, you still have time to get dressed and get there for the show. I’ll finish alone.”
Dennis looked back at him as if Christmas had come early. “Really?” He turned to Keisha. “Can we go? Can we?”
“Go. It’s okay. I really don’t mind. Have fun.”
“Are you sure?” She looked at all the boxes doubtfully. “You’ll be here for another hour…”
He nodded. “Yes. Go.”
“Thanks, man! Come on, Keisha!” Dennis pulled a laughing Keisha by the hand.
A minute later, Josh was alone. He took out his phone and dialed his sister’s number.
“Hi, Josh,” came the familiar voice. Loud music could be heard in the background.
“I’m not finished yet. How’s your party?”
She laughed. “You know Skull. I’m waiting for the midnight surprise, and then I’ll go home.”
“Enjoy the show. I’ll see you later.”
He sighed, looked at his watch again, and put a box back on its shelf.
When he reached his house, it was already ten past one. His parents didn’t like him to come home this late, even if it was because of work, but tonight, he couldn’t avoid it.
The house was still fully lit. His parents were sitting on the couch, cuddling and watching an old black and white movie.
His father’s voice was neutral, but Josh knew better. Robert never shouted. Instead, he used a flat, businesslike tone. And Josh heard the unspoken implications: a punitive deduction on his earnings.
“Keisha and Dennis left early to go to a party. I had to finish alone.” Just a fact, no excuse, no arguing. It wouldn’t do any good anyway.
“Then you should have worked harder so you’d get it done faster. If you don’t learn that, you’ll never be back at home early enough to spend time with your wife and children, like I do.”
Josh didn’t reply but simply nodded.
“There’s a plate of food for you in the fridge,” his mother said, without taking her eyes off the television.
“I’m not hungry.” He turned around and headed for the stairs. “I’ll just wish Cherry goodnight and go to bed.”
“She isn’t back yet.”
Josh did a double-take. “What?”
“There’s no need to shout like this, dear,” Elaine answered calmly. “She’s barely fifteen minutes late.”
“But Cherry’s never late!”
“Precisely. She’s always been the responsible one. I’m sure she has a perfectly good reason. You’ve been late more than once.”
Josh clenched his fists. “Aren’t you worried something’s happened to her?”
His father threw him an annoyed glance. “She’s with Cooper.”
Elaine smiled at her husband. “He’s such a gentleman.”
“He sure is.” Robert turned to his son, no trace of his wife’s smile reflected on his face. “I’ll talk to him when he brings her back. Now go to bed. You have to tend the garden tomorrow morning.”
Josh gritted his teeth and walked up to his room.
“Your father left early this morning.”
A half-smile appeared briefly on Josh’s lips. It didn’t linger long enough for his mother to notice it. She didn’t notice either how tired her son looked, as if he hadn’t slept much during the night.
“Is Cherry already up?”
Elaine put a pancake on his plate without even glancing at him, a slight frown on her lips. “No. She must have come back very late. Your father and I didn’t hear her. We’ll have to talk to her and Cooper. They’re both very mature, but one of them could have called or left a message.”
Josh tapped his fingers nervously on the table. As soon as he realized he was doing it, he stopped. “Mom, did you check her room?”
“Of course not. I didn’t want to wake her up.” She turned, pointing an accusatory spatula at him. “And don’t you dare do it. Your sister’s had a long night. She needs her sleep.”
Josh barely muffled a groan. He gulped down his breakfast. “I’ll trim the flower beds first, then,” he said before leaving the room.
He was opening the front door when his mother called from the kitchen. “Can you get the mail first?”
In the mailbox were four letters, three addressed to his parents, and another one without anything written on it. Josh walked slowly back inside, staring at it.
He put all the letters on the table, except for the one with the blank envelope.
Elaine stirred the cooking pot a few more seconds, then washed her hands before turning her attention to the mail. She took out a paper knife from a drawer to open the letters cleanly—every envelope had to be opened, even the junk mail, and one had to do it properly to respect the sender and give them the consideration they deserved, a long-term habit that she’d never managed to transmit to her son. She sat at the kitchen table for the task. She had the first envelope in her left hand, ready to be opened, when she noticed the one her son still held.
“What is that letter?”
Josh shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s nothing on it. Not even our address.”
Elaine frowned, her respect for the mail not extending to the one sent by people too lazy to write down or even print an address. “Then you can throw it away.”
Despite his mother’s order, Josh tore the envelope open, and took out a folded, regular white sheet of paper. As he did it, a smaller piece of thick paper fell from it, and landed at his feet. He hunched down to pick it up, then straightened up and turned it around to look at it, only to discover the picture on its other side.
“Mom?” Clutching the picture, he unfolded the letter without ceremony and read it. “Mom?”
Surprised by his strange tone of voice, she looked up. “What? I’m busy.”
“Mom, you really have to look at this.” He was unable to keep the strain out of his voice.
Still frowning, and with a briskness displaying her annoyance, Elaine grabbed the letter and the picture from her son’s hands and looked at them. Her eyes widened with shock at the first glimpse of the picture. It showed her daughter Cherry, tied to a chair in a dark room, gagged and blindfolded. The letter was short.
Two million dollars. Tomorrow at 02:00 a.m. sharp at the corner of Baker and Easton. No car, no cops, and no tricks or she dies.