Dale Marion never felt comfortable around other staff members. Seemed they all had spouses, kids, new homes, and lakefront cabins north of West Branch. Dale had none of that and never wanted it. He wanted something different, something to replace the boredom of it all.
Because he kept to himself, he knew some of his colleagues made fun of him. Whenever he entered the staff lounge to grab a Coke, the teachers at the lunch table stopped talking. Sure, they said hello and smiled, but even after ten years they kept him out of the loop, waited until he was gone to resume their conversation. Dale actually got a kick out of how different he was from them.
The seventh graders who entered his science room every August saw him as Mr. Cool, a man with biker boots and a ponytail. Parents saw him as a harmless oddball, the eccentric science teacher who turned kids on to cells and genetics. At conferences and open houses, Dale was always surprised at how much these Polo-wearing conservatives appreciated him.
Problem now was he hated it all.
Some time during the past winter he started coming to work for the paycheck instead of the kids. He didn’t blame anybody. All he needed was a break to sort things out, take the summer to think about his future.
Dale thought about all of this as he gathered in the bus loop with the rest of the faculty and administration of Westphalia Middle School to wave goodbye to the students for the summer. In past years Dale was sad on this day; sad he had to let go of the hundred or so relationships he’d spent the past nine months on. But today, as he watched the smiling faces in the bus windows pass by, he was glad to see them go.
Dale walked behind the other teachers and studied them as they re-entered the school. They were all smiles today, laughing and talking about their summer plans, talking about anything but teaching. Dale knew that many of them didn’t smile much during the school year.
Take Gordie Davis, the old-timer in the room next to Dale’s. Gordie was 62, obese, and about as unhappy as they come, always complaining about his wife and how he’d never retire as long as she was around. Dale watched Gordie from behind and noticed how his love handles bounced over the sides of his belt like Jell-O. Dale thought, God, is that me 30 years from now?
And that’s when Dale Marion figured out what was troubling him: He was in the early stages of becoming Gordie Davis. True, he wasn’t fat and married yet, but like most of the staff members today, he was happy the kids were gone, couldn’t wait for the little bastards to get out of the building, a new feeling Dale didn’t like. He said to himself, so this is it, teacher burnout at 32. Wonderful.
He bought a six-pack on the way home and opened the first can 20 minutes later as he ate last night’s cold pizza on the living room floor of his Royal Oak condo. Feeling anxious and restless, he made the phone call he’d been thinking about for a while. He was on the last piece of pizza and halfway through his third beer when he decided to leave. He gulped the rest of the beer and took the remaining three with him for support.
He drove up and down Woodward, stayed in the “safe part” from Ferndale north through Bloomfield Hills. He hid two cans of beer under his seat and placed an open one between his legs, sneaking sips when opportunities arose. Dale was buzzed and knowingly breaking the law for the first time since high school when he’d gone around with a baseball bat shattering the windshields of parked cars for the fun of it. Dale laughed at the memory. He slid in a Kid Rock CD and turned it up until the windshield vibrated, feeling more confident with every drink of alcohol.
He drove south out of Ferndale and crossed Eight Mile, entering Detroit around midnight. Dale was on his fifth beer now, feeling nervous and excited as he approached Highland Park, windows down and Kid Rock blaring.
Highland Park. Better known as Detroit’s asshole. Three square miles of decaying shit surrounded by the Motor City; home to a strip of Woodward so crime-ridden you’d have to be insane to walk it alone at night. But here was Dale, popping open number six, driving into the asshole as if he’d lived in it his entire life, feeling the glares from the people who lived here only because they couldn’t get out. Dale stared back at a few of them until they looked away and shook their heads. Dale was thinking he’d won their respect since they couldn’t hold his gaze.
He stopped at a red light and noticed a liquor store ahead to his right. Five tough-looking young guys, early twenties, were hanging around out front near a payphone, talking and laughing like they’d known each other since grade school. Dale said to himself, shit, they probably do go back that far.
He needed more beer; he was just getting started. When the light turned green he pulled up in front of the liquor store and parallel parked in a space next to the pay phone. As he sat there debating whether to get out, he could feel the guys in front of the store eyeing him. Dale pretended not to notice. Instead he thought about the staff and students back at Westphalia Middle School and what they’d say if they saw him now. Check out Dale Marion, cruising Woodward with confidence, about to get out and rub elbows with some Highland Park thugs. Or maybe something like, Don’t mess with Mr. Marion, man knows the rough part of town.
Dale turned down the Kid Rock. He left the windows down on purpose, grabbed his keys, and got out of the car. Standing there on Woodward, he felt the alcohol buzz intensify and had to concentrate just to walk straight. He wondered what these young guys might do to him if they knew he was drunk. Cool it Dale, he thought. You’re in charge here.
He walked around the young guys on his way toward the store and nodded at them like he recognized them from the neighborhood. One of the guys nodded back and asked him what was up. Dale said, “Not a lot, man.” The guys laughed as he entered the store, but Dale didn’t think much of it.
Dale came out of the store with a 40-ounce beer in a paper bag. He nodded at the young guys again, the guys nodding back like before, not giving him any trouble. He stepped onto Woodward and walked around the front of his car to the driver’s side.
As he opened the door, a white van pulled up and braked hard behind him. By the time Dale turned around, two muscular men wearing black ski masks had their arms around him. They grabbed his keys and the beer and tossed them both inside his car, then pulled him toward the open side door of the van and shoved him inside. Next thing Dale knew he was spread-eagled on his stomach facing the floor of the van with the two guys holding him down.
They pressed the left side of his face hard against the floor, the angle allowing Dale to see his car through the still-open sliding van door. That was the strange part, how they held him there and kept the door open for a few seconds, like they wanted him to see something special.
Dale saw the young guys from the pay phone walk onto Woodward and get inside his car. The guy who had asked him what was up sat in the driver’s seat and turned his head to meet Dale’s gaze. The guy smiled as he waved the keys in the air, shaking his head as if to say, sorry, pal, but you’re screwed. He started the car and held up Dale’s 40-ouncer. “Cheers, motherfucker,” he said, then took a drink and passed the bottle to his buddy in the passenger seat.
As Dale heard his car speed away down Woodward he was surprised how calm he was. Must be the alcohol, he thought. Okay, this is a carjacking, right? Some gang the cops haven’t busted yet? They have my car and that’s what they wanted. Now they’ll dump me off somewhere, maybe beat the hell out of me first, but nothing worse, right?
He felt a needle prick in his right arm and saw the empty syringe land in front of him and roll out the open door onto Woodward. His vision blurred as one of the guys closed the sliding door. He felt the van accelerate and everything faded to black within seconds.
He awoke blindfolded and sitting upright in a metal chair that felt like the kind people rented for graduation parties. His wrists were tied together behind the chair with thick rope, his feet shackled to the two front legs. He had a splitting headache from the alcohol and whatever it was they’d injected into him. The worst part was the rag they’d shoved into his mouth, forced it in so far he couldn’t move his tongue. The fabric smelled and tasted like gasoline, causing Dale to dry heave every few minutes.
The room was humid and musty. Dale heard several footsteps rushing about on the floor above, all kinds of things being moved around up there. He guessed he was in a basement. The whole scenario felt like an action movie. Any minute now he’d free himself and find a way out of this place. Jesus, what a Friday night this was turning out to be. You were bored, right? Wanted some excitement? Sick of being a schoolteacher, isn’t that what you said?
He heard footsteps descending a stairway. His heart raced and beads of sweat formed on his upper lip. He tried wiggling out of the rope and shackles, but he fell over sideways in the chair and landed on a cold, concrete floor instead. Lying there in pain he said to himself, so my life is going to end at 32 in the basement of a Highland Park crack house. Wonder how they’ll do it? Blow my head off? Slice me up? Maybe smoke some rock and take turns on me? Two guys smoking, one guy cutting, then they switch. Crazy fucking crackheads.
There were three of them and they started circling him, Dale hearing only their footsteps. He figured they were taunting him, waiting for the right moment to strike.
They circled for three minutes before Dale snapped. He tried screaming, but he choked on the gag and grunted instead. Frustrated, he started flopping around the floor, trying to make physical contact with one of the abductors, but all they did was back up to avoid him.
The footsteps stopped once he settled down.
A young male voice asked, “Scared yet, Dale?”
Dale felt a hand yank the gag out of his mouth. He took a few deep breaths, then said, “How do you know my name?”
A female voice said, “We checked your wallet.”
Dale cleared his throat. “Let me go. Please.”
The third voice, an older male, said, “Can’t do that, Dale. The night’s just begun.”
“What?” Dale asked.
Nobody answered. They shoved the gag back into his mouth instead.
Moments later Dale felt the hairy arms and hard muscles of the two males as they untied his wrists and feet. They held him down long enough for the girl to take the metal chair away. They positioned him flat on his back, stretched his arms above his head, and tied his wrists back together. The girl came back and retied his feet.
They left him alone for a few minutes, but Dale knew they were close because he didn’t hear anybody go up the stairs. He guessed they were waiting to see how he’d react. What he did, he stayed still and thought about the staff and students from Westphalia, pictured them sleeping like babies in their suburban fortresses.
For the first time in his life he wished he were there with them. Wake up early with the wife, have a go at it, roll off the four-post bed, cup of coffee with the Free Press, let the dog out, bug the kids a bit, skim the pool, mow the lawn. Didn’t sound too bad, did it?
But then what? Drive the kids around all day? Let the wife storm Somerset and run up the plastic while you stay home and sneak in the porno you rented last night and hid in the toolbox? Maybe tie one on later and watch the Tigers lose, then pass out and do it all again tomorrow? No way, Dale thought. Even if I live through this thing, there’s no way my life will come to that.
The two males lifted him by his hands and feet, held him there in midair. He heard the woman preparing something on the floor beneath him, and when the men set him down he landed on a thin sheet of plastic. Somebody forced a plastic grocery bag over his head and secured it tightly around his neck, Dale feeling the plastic against his nostrils with each inhale. Between the gag and the grocery bag, breathing was almost impossible, and somewhere, deep within, Dale knew the worst was still to come.
He used everything he had to put up one last fight, jerked his limbs hard enough to catch the abductors off guard and throw them back a few feet. He tried sitting upright, but two hands landed on the plastic covering his ears and slammed him back down. A third hand covered his nose, blocking off the flow of oxygen to his brain. Dale thought, this is it, this is the end. I’m dying by suffocation and I can’t even move. As the hand pressed down harder, Dale had a strange vision. He found himself admiring drowning victims, how they could at least whip their arms and legs around before they died, leave this world knowing they fought death to the end. But here he was a vegetable, couldn’t even see his killers.
The hand pulled away just as Dale was blacking out.
“No way, pal, you’re not going that easy,” the older male said.
They tore a hole in the plastic around his nose. As Dale regained consciousness he realized they’d stripped him down to his underwear. He heard a box open and felt something tickling his belly, like little feet scampering around down there.
Jesus, that’s exactly what they were, little feet. More of them now, crawling through his chest hair, down his legs, over the plastic bag, tiny cold noses probing his nostrils. Somebody lifted the waistline of his underwear and tucked one of them down there. Dale felt fur and a tail brush against his genitals. My God, he thought, they’re putting rats on me. Of all the animals in the world, he hated rats the most, had a phobia of them ever since one bit him back in fifth grade.
The rodents toured his body for a few minutes, Dale not moving a muscle the entire time. Then the two male abductors lifted the plastic sheet beneath him and wrapped it around him like a blanket, rats included. The rats were trapped against his flesh now and didn’t like it, Dale feeling them fighting for freedom, like they were drowning. As he prayed for them not to bite him, he felt the warmness of his own urine spread across his upper thighs.
Last thing Dale remembered about the basement was being rolled up in more plastic. They wrapped it tight enough to render him motionless, but left enough slack for the rats to tunnel around inside, using his skin as a road. The female abductor cut a hole through the new plastic over his nose, and this time she cut one over his mouth. Somebody pulled the gag out again, but Dale was too weak to scream, too exhausted to say anything. What he did, he savored the oxygen entering his mouth and wondered when these three maniacs would get bored and end it.
He tried to imagine what he looked like to them, this 32-year-old man stretched from head to toe, rolled up in plastic like a carpet. He wondered what they’d do with his body when they were finished. How long before somebody finds me? He wondered. How much of me will the rats eat? My God, I’m such a loner will anybody come to my funeral? When was the last time I talked with Mom and Dad?
He blacked out after they pried his mouth open and let a rat poke its head inside.
He came to lying fully clothed in a fetal position on the front porch of his condo. The sun was beginning to rise, but he had no clue what time it was. His head felt like a truck had run over it. The rope burns on his wrists stung enough to make him want to scream.
He stood up and leaned his elbows on the iron railing of the porch, looked out at Woodward and tried to clear his head. He felt his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans and took it out. Everything was there, even his driver’s license. He realized his keys were with his car, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.
Despite everything he’d been through the past several hours: abduction, carjacking, forced drug use, and physical torture, Dale smiled, smiled because he was still alive. All he could do was shake his head in disbelief and wonder whether this experience would change the way he lived his life.
He walked around to the rear-entry garage, punched in the security code, and watched the garage door open. He used a spare key he’d taped to the bottom of a trashcan to let himself inside the condo.
Dale took the most refreshing shower of his life, the hot water soothing the soreness he felt throughout his body. He stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later wearing a towel around his waist.
The phone rang a minute after that.
“Hello,” Dale said.
A male voice, calm, said, “Hello, Dale. Home sweet home, huh?”
Dale’s heart jumped. It was the older guy from the basement. “Is it over now?” Dale asked.
The guy said, “That’s up to you. Do you want it to be over?”
“Yeah, it’s done,” Dale said. “So, how many times have you done this?”
The guy laughed. “You’re number 40,” he said. “How’d you like it?”
Dale looked at his raw wrists and bruised ankles. “A little rough, but I guess that’s part of it.”
“Yeah,” the guy said, “keep it as real as possible. Have to be careful, though. Last thing I need is a paying customer dying in the middle of it.”
Ryan Potter teaches middle school in suburban Detroit and spends his evenings writing fiction. E-mail: karma002[at]sbcglobal.net.