Authors: Richard Scrimger
“I want to do that,” says Frieda suddenly. She gets up from the table, swings herself into her chair, and rolls off the patio and down the sidewalk.
“What? Where are you going?”
Frieda finds the ramp at the street corner, and rolls herself along the side street towards the parked truck. She stops at the foot of the ramp, takes a deep breath, and begins
to push herself up. She gets only a few feet up when one of her hands slips, and the chair slides down to the foot of the ramp. She shakes her head, and tries again. She gets halfway up the ramp, this time, working harder and harder. She slows. Slows some more. Stops.
“Let me help.” I run over and stand beside the ramp, ready to grab hold of the chair.
“No,” she says, breathing hard. “Get away!”
I take a step back. She lifts her hands and the wheelchair slides smoothly down the ramp and onto the street again. She rolls backwards a few seconds, then brakes. Her mouth is tight.
“Come on, Frieda,” I say. “Let’s get going. We can be at your place in a few minutes.”
“First this,” she says. She spits on her hands, takes a few deep breaths. Olympic weight lifters don’t wear sunglasses during competition, but she has the same look on her face. Concentration. Going for the record.
The sun disappears behind a cloud.
A car drives past us, honking. Something about it looks familiar. Frieda ignores the car, rolls herself forward bending at the waist, her arms flashing back and forth as she takes short sharp pulls. She gains speed quickly.
The car reverses into a parking spot across the road.
Frieda is almost all the way up the ramp now. Her mouth is open. She’s panting. Her arm muscles writhe like snakes. Can she do it?
I’m afraid she’ll lose control at the top of the ramp. I remember riding my bike up a steep hill in Port Hope – that’s
next door to Cobourg, where I live; there are no hills in Cobourg – getting tireder and tireder as I got closer to the top, my pedals moving more and more slowly, until finally they stopped altogether. And I didn’t have enough strength to get off the bike. I just fell over sideways, like a monkey falling out of a tree. Nearly got run over. I don’t want that to happen to Frieda, so I run up the ramp myself just as she makes it to the top.
“Yes! Yes!” she cries, pumping her fist in the air.
I don’t move as smoothly as Frieda or the skateboarders. My running jars the ramp loose, and it falls to the ground with a huge clatter just as I reach the top. I jump into the back of the truck.
“Yes, yes, yes!” She’s still pumping her fist. Her face shines with joy and sweat. She’s not paying attention to where she’s going. Her chair rolls backwards. The road isn’t too far to jump, but Frieda’s not a jumper. I grab the back of her chair, and hang on like a bad cold. I don’t want her rolling over the edge.
The truck engine starts, whirs a couple of times, and stops.
Someone’s in the truck cab. I didn’t hear anyone get in. The engine whirs and stops again.
Two men are crossing the road towards us. Did they come from the blue car? One of the men is slouchy; the other, skinny. I smell cologne.
Oh, no. No no no.
“I don’t believe it,” says Slouchy. He grabs one of the rear doors and swings it shut. There’s a bolt at the bottom.
He locks the door tight. “After all the trouble we’ve had finding you. At the airport. Trying to follow your cab.”
“Taking that old lady home,” Skinny reminds him.
“Oh, yeah. What a lousy tipper she was! And now, just driving around your neighborhood, we find you waiting for us. I don’t believe it.”
Skinny holds the other door ready to slam. “Do you see how dirty this truck is?” he says. “Whoever owns it must not care what it looks like at all.”
“I guess he won’t mind us borrowing it, then,” says Slouchy. He bangs on the side of the truck. “Hurry up, Ron, I thought you knew how to hot-wire these things.”
Skinny slams the other rear door, leaving us in darkness.
The engine finally catches. The truck takes off. I fall over. Frieda’s chair falls over.
What a mess.
No windows in the back of the truck, but the darkness is not quite total. Chinks of light show through the door fittings. Frieda is sitting up on the floor, rubbing her hand. Her chair is nearby, on its side. “Are you all right?” I ask.
Brakes squeal. The truck turns sharply, throwing me against Frieda. Her chair slides past us. The top wheel is spinning.
Somewhere outside a dog is barking.
We realize what this means at the same time. “Where’s Sally?” she asks.
“Where’s Norbert?” I say.
We turn towards each other in the dimness. I don’t know about Frieda, but I feel awfully alone. In a weird way Norbert is a link to reality for me. He’s part of my past, part of the world of Mom and school, of my friends Victor and Miranda. I haven’t thought about Miranda in a while. She’s not a girlfriend, exactly, but she is a friend, and a girl.
Here I am in the dark with a different girl. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about Miranda now.
Is Frieda crying? The truck takes another turn, and she falls against me. Lots of dumb things come into your mind when you’re in trouble. Frieda’s hair smells nice. Sort of spicy. “What are we going to do?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
The truck stops. I can hear the radio in the front playing loudly. I can hear traffic noises: horns blaring, brakes shrieking, motors burbling and growling. I scramble over to the door and try to open it from the inside. I find a handle and pull. Nothing happens. I push. Nothing happens.
The truck starts up again. I sit beside Frieda. We bump up and down for a bit.
“Are you really rich?” I say. “Is that why they’re after you?”
“You’re here too,” she reminds me.
“Yes, but it’s you they want,” I say. I’m trying to convince myself that I’m okay, even though I know I’m not. I’m a witness. I’ve seen enough movies to know what happens to witnesses. Gulp.
“I think we’re pretty rich,” she says. “We have a cottage on the ocean, and a boat. I love the boat. Dad promised to take me sailing when I got back. I hope he’s not too busy.”
“My friend Victor has a sailboat,” I say. “He and his dad go in races, every Wednesday night. They took me once.” I fell overboard, and Victor kidded me about it for
weeks. “It was pretty crowded, with the three of us,” I say.
“A dinghy,” she says, in a tone of voice that says dinghies are no good – only yokels have dinghies. “Our boat is a cutter. Forty-four feet long, with a crew of four.”
The truck speeds up. Traffic noises are quieter.
My stomach rolls. I look at my watch. It’s got a button at the side that turns on a light, so you can see the time even in the dark. 12:15. I think back to the ice cream. I wish I’d eaten the sugar cookie. I think back to breakfast, early this morning.
I have a sudden mental picture. I can see our kitchen counter, with the butter dish and toast crumbs. I see the jam spreading smoothly under my knife, savor the good feeling after I wipe the knife on the edge of the jar and it comes away clean.
“I’m hungry,” I say. My stomach rolls again.
I think about it. The truck makes a long turn. The wheelchair slides. We slide after it. “I’m hungry
scared,” I say.
She doesn’t seem scared. Not the way I’m scared. She’s upset about Sally, and worried about something else – something other than Slouchy and Skinny. And Ron, whoever he is.
“Did you see the driver of the truck?” I ask. “The guy they called Ron?”
“Do you think they’ll ask for a lot of ransom money?”
“A million dollars?”
“Shut up, will you!”
I think about my mom, trying to find a million dollars. Dad would help too, but I don’t think they’d be able to do it. Then they’d blame each other.
Frieda has her head down. Her shoulders are shaking. “Hey,” I say. “Don’t cry.” Really good thing to say. She cries harder. The truck slows, and she falls over.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m sure they’ll find the money – your dad being an important politician, and the big boat and all. Oh, yeah. They’ll find the money, no matter how much it is.”
I’m doing really badly here. Frieda is crying harder than ever, crying so hard I’m kind of worried that she’ll hurt herself. In the movies they slap people who cry like this, but I don’t want to slap Frieda in case she slaps me back. I lift her up, so that we’re sitting side by side, and I put my arm around her shoulder. She has big shoulders, like a couple of railroad ties.
Her crying calms down a bit. She yawns. “Suppose they … don’t
to pay,” she says.
“Sure, they have the money, but what if they don’t want to spend it on
Ooh. That’s what she’s worried about all along.
“I heard my mom talking on the phone about how expensive my operations were, how they weren’t really worth it because I was still…
Frieda pushes away from me, and makes her voice sound all bubbly. “‘Honestly, darling, all that money, all those operations to fix her, and
the child is still broken. Who’s ever going to care about her?’ That’s what Mom said.”
“Not unyuck,” she agrees.
The truck stops suddenly. We both fall forward. The engine shuts off. I can’t hear any traffic. The light is dimmer than it was; dimmer than it should be at – I check my watch – 12:50. I wonder where we are.
“Hello?” I knock on the side of the van. “Hello?”
“Quiet in there!” The voice is pitched high, and right next to the back door. I jump.
Is it Ron’s voice? There’s something familiar about it. I sit still for a moment. Nothing happens. Then a strange thought wanders into my head, a thought from another time, another place. A thought from another mind.
What would Norbert do?
There were horrible bullies at my school last year. I was afraid of them. But Norbert wasn’t. And when he laughed at the bullies, and called them names, I was scared, but I knew it was the right thing to do. “Help!” I shout. “Help help help!”
“Be quiet. Or else!” Ron – if it is Ron – sounds upset.
“Or else what? You going to take us for a ride?” I bang on the side of the truck. “Come on, Frieda! Make some noise! Help! Help! Help!”
Frieda shrieks – a pretty good one – it echoes around the inside of the truck. She’s holding my hand. I don’t mind. Two kids in the dark, screaming at the top of their lungs.
Ron tells us to be quiet again, but he sounds like he knows he can’t make it stick. He sounds like a French teacher telling you to be quiet, or an out-of-town relative at a family picnic. The sort of guy you can ignore. And he’s alone.
And then he isn’t.
“What’s going on?” asks Slouchy. I’d recognize his voice anywhere. “Any trouble?”
“No,” says Ron.
“Good,” says Slouchy.
Frieda gasps. I shut up. I can’t help it, I’m scared.
Then I hear a rolling sound, like a skateboard, and another voice saying, “Thought I heard something.” Not a kid’s voice, but not grown-up. And what an accent.
Thwahwt I huwd somepm
“No,” says Ron. “Just us talking.”
“Sounded like someone calling for help,” says the not-quite-grown-up voice.
Cwollin fuh heaylp
. It takes me a second to figure out what he’s saying.
“Beat it, junior,” says Slouchy. “And take your wagon with you.”
Not a skateboard. Junior sounds too old to be playing with a wagon. “You sure there’s no one calling for help?” he says.
“I didn’t hear anything,” says Slouchy. “You hear anything, Ron?”
“No,” says Ron.
, it sounds like.
Silence. I should make a noise. I should say something.
That’s what Norbert would do. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out except air.
“I told you to beat it,” says Slouchy.
“Shew-ah.” He doesn’t seem too worried. The sound of his wagon fades in the distance. One of its wheels squeaks.
The doors of the truck open. There’s Slouchy, with his red hair and cologne.
“Get out!” he says. “Jones, Ronnie, get them out!” Jones must be the real name of the skinny government guy. He might have superpowers at the airport; here he follows Slouchy’s orders.
Hands reach towards us in the darkness. Ronnie’s are small, delicate, with tinted nails. Ronnie is a woman. I’m so surprised, I forget my fear.
Frieda is nodding to herself. “I wondered, back at the airport,” she says.
“Ron?” I say. “Ronnie? Veronica?”
The flight attendant. So interested in taking care of us, I remember. Wonder if she takes care of all her passengers this way, or if we’re getting special treatment.
They hustle me out of the truck first. Then they lift Frieda down – not very carefully. I grab her before she falls over. Her designer suit is covered in grease and dirt. Her sunglasses are gone. Without them, she looks younger.
I help her to the ground. She sits with her back against a broken fence. She looks like a doll. Her head is on one side. Her eyes are wide open – startling blue eyes. I’ve never noticed them before. The same color as her earrings.
Her muscular arms dangle. You almost expect her to say, “Mama,” or “I made wee-wee,” or “Math is hard!”
“So we finally got you out of your chair, hey!” says Slouchy. “Couldn’t do it in the airport. You were too clever, hey? Well, who’s laughing now?” He is, that’s who. I catch a faint glint of his silver tooth.
We’re in an alley. Trash all over. Tall brick buildings blocking out the sky. Traffic noise very faint in the distance. Skinny stands next to me.
“Well, Ronnie?” Slouchy asks over his shoulder. Veronica is in the back of the truck. “Did you get them?”
I can’t see what she’s doing, but I hear a metallic clunking sound. Frieda’s chair sliding along the floor.
“Have you heard from my parents?” Frieda asks. “What do they say?”
Veronica gets down from the truck, brandishing something wrapped in brown paper. There’s a smell that takes me back to a summer’s day long ago, when I was very small and my dad was treating the back fence. Creosote. It’s also the smell of railroad ties – I wonder if I smelled it earlier. The package has been thoroughly waterproofed.
“What do my parents say?” Frieda asks. A brave girl. She’s afraid of the answer, but she wants to know.
Slouchy’s eyes are on the wrapped package. “I’ve never talked to your parents,” he says.
“Then why,” she gasps, “did you kidnap me?”
“Kidnap?” says Skinny. “Who said anything about kidnap?”
“It’s not kidnapping to borrow a truck with two kids hiding in the back,” says Slouchy. “And, anyway, we don’t care about you. We wanted the wheelchair.”
For a moment I think Frieda is going to cry.
Veronica unwraps the bundle carefully, and peers inside. “Old Hawkface is here,” she says. “And in one piece. Earless will be happy to see him.”
“He’s waiting in the gallery. You take it to him, Jones. He’ll want to clean it before showing it off.” Slouchy stares at us, even though he’s talking to Skinny. “Leave the truck someplace when you’re done. Ronnie, you wait in the car. I won’t be long.” Parked at the end of the alley is the blue car with the pink tassel on the aerial.
“I’ll take it to Earless,” says Veronica, casually.
“Better let Jones do it. It’s his gallery, after all.”
I wonder who Hawkface is. And Earless. They sound like bad guys from a comic book.
Slouchy pushes me towards Frieda’s fence. I sit down beside her. He slams the back doors of the truck. He doesn’t bother with the bolt lock this time.
“What about Frieda’s chair?” I ask. “She can’t get around without it.”
“She shouldn’t have slapped me,” he says, with a bully’s sneer.
The car drives away. I notice an empty cigarette pack nearby.
, it says on the side. I don’t feel lucky.
Slouchy comes over, and squats down beside us. A big strong mean man, with a cologne to match. “I’m going
now,” he says. “But I want you two kids to listen very carefully to what I have to say.” His quiet conversational tone is scarier than yelling would be. “I want what happened here to be our little secret. Okay? If either of you ever –
– tells anyone, I’m going to come and get you,” he says. “I will find you. I will hurt you. I will hurt your family. I will hurt your dog.”
“The dog isn’t mine,” I say. The words pop out before I can stop them. I’m so relieved to hear he’s going that I can’t help myself. “I don’t have any pets. I used to have a turtle named Mr. Whiskers, but he crawled into the heating duct.”
Slouchy doesn’t say anything. He stares at me. I shut up.
“You never saw me,” he begins again. “You don’t know what I look like. You don’t know what happened to the wheelchair. Is that a deal?”
“Sure,” I say. Frieda nods.
“Are you going to talk to the police?”
“No,” I whisper. Frieda shakes her head.
“Good. I want you two to close your eyes now, and count to a thousand. Don’t open your eyes until you reach a thousand. I’ll be listening for you. Do you understand?”
I nod. My eyes are closed. “One, two three four,” I say.