reprinted from The Desperate and the Damned
They had only been gone a few hours, just long enough to see a movie and pick up some food for the kid, but somehow that’d been long enough for Taylor Olsen to die, the boy still strapped to the metal folding chair Neil had tied him to before they left, his face blue, his little clenched mouth filled with vomit.
Neil stood there, refusing to go any further into the small bedroom they’d kept the kid stored in, his back pushed against the doorframe, the circuits of his brain suddenly overloaded. Acid surged in his throat. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” he asked. “God, he’s dead, isn’t he?”
A dizziness had fallen over him, throwing the world out of tilt, and in that sudden vertigo he had felt something fall away inside of himself, something almost physical. His hands had gone clammy and he ran them down the curve of his belly, searching. It was as though there had been a great fundamental piece of himself that’d been suddenly sheared away, swallowed by an invisible abscess. Sweat burst across his brow and he became obsessed with the idea that if he could somehow make the kid alive again, the new and sucking abscess he felt inside himself would close.
He fought to breathe.
“Yeah,” Rex said. He stood stopped in front of the body, turned back, holding Neil’s eyes, watching Neil’s panic crest like a wave. His face was smooth, his voice calming, unflappable. “He’s dead, but Jesus, you’ve got to relax, man. It’s not ideal, but it’s fine. Nothing has changed. They don’t know. They’re still gonna drop the cash.”
“But they’re not going to get the kid back.” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement, as though there was still a possibility, a chance, that somehow Taylor’s parents would get the kid back. He swallowed, his words hanging in the air, his tongue thick in his mouth and swollen as though with salt, like a man gone overboard. He was on the verge of tears. Of tearing out his own hair. Of going to the back of the house and pulling out the shotgun he knew Rex kept on the top shelf of the closet and putting both barrels in his mouth. “I can’t believe I let you to talk me in to this.”
They’d been in the back of a darkened bar when they first worked the outline of the plan, drunk on cheap beer and resentment. “No one will get hurt,” Rex had promised. “And with the money, when we’re settled, you can send for Meredith if you want. You can try again. This kid can be your shot.”
Neil nodded along, the taste of bitter anger and aged yeast in the back of his throat. He was unsure of what Rex was saying, but even more unsure of the remaining paths his life had left to explore, and in his anger, the plan made a certain kind of sense. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get another job. It wasn’t even that they’d been laid off - it was winter, and work had slowed to a trickle anyway. It was the way he’d been treated that pissed Neil off. It was that Mr. Olsen, who’d known all about Neil’s troubles, who’d had a man to man discussion with Neil after he’d had to call in several times the year before, had still somehow not seen him as a person, but instead as a figure to be removed from a spreadsheet. It would be a victimless crime. Not even a crime, but an investment in his future, in a chance to rebuild his life. The fact that the funds would be provided by the man who had only pretended to care about Neil’s life, right before kicking the last leg of stability out from underneath him, was too perfect to ignore. “Yeah,” Neil had said, sloshing his pint glass towards the water damaged ceiling. “Let’s goddamn do it.”
Three weeks later, they grabbed Taylor from the lobby of a suburban megachurch while the boy waited for his mother to pick him up from Wednesday night youth group. They wore masks, just in case the boy had seen them before while visiting worksites with his dad.
Neil spent the entire drive back to Rex’s house promising Taylor that he would be okay, that they weren’t going to hurt him, that none of this was his fault. “We’re just going to have a talk with your dad,” Neil told the boy. “And then you’ll see him and your mom right after. It’ll be like a camping trip. Like a dream you had once, but won’t remember later.”
And now this. A dead child tied to a chair and a rotting emptiness swirling inside of him.
Neil moved to the body, snowpack flecking off his boots. With a hesitant finger, he reached out and poked the little knees strapped together underneath the chinos, half expecting them to still kick. When they didn’t fresh bile rose in his throat.
“Dude, would you fucking stop it?” Rex grabbed Neil by the shoulder and dragged him back towards the door. “Would you just stay fucking put?”
“But they’re not going to get him back,” Neil said again, his voice breaking. His vision tunneled. His hands clasped and unclasped mindlessly. The abscess spun deeper and darker inside of his gut and blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t understand how Rex wasn’t as close to coming undone as he was, why Rex didn’t seem able to grasp how fucked they were. A kid was dead. His parent’s weren’t going to get him back. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could walk away from. That wasn’t the kind of thing that could be undone. “There’s no way for us to give him back.”
“God damn it, they don’t know that, though. They won’t know until after. And by then, we’re going to be off, living another life far the fuck away from them and from here.” There was anger in Rex’s face, but his voice remained calm, sure of the situation. Rex let go of Neil’s shirt, then went back to Taylor. He reached down and pried the boy’s little mouth open. Vomit, dried and flaky, fell out over Taylor’s baby teeth and into the lap of his little chinos. “I just don’t get how it happened, that’s all,” he said.
Neil began to pace. The smell of the fish sticks and greasy tartar sauce hung in the room, mixing with the tangy scent of the dead kid’s vomit until Neil thought he was going to be sick himself. He remembered Meredith then, how when she'd been pregnant she’d vomited almost the entire time. How, eventually, he’d gotten used to the smell as he sat on the bathroom floor next to her, rubbing her back. Neil held the memory, allowed it to buoy him, until finally the hole he’d felt inside himself seemed further away. “They’re calling soon,” he said. “Like two hours. What the hell are we going to say if they want to speak to him?”
Rex went to a dresser that stood along the far wall of the room. “We tell them no deal. They talked to him yesterday. And if they drop the money, they’ll see him tonight. Make it threatening.” He pulled a blanket from the dresser, a child’s blanket, one with tattered, worn, edges and white Nebraska football helmets on it. “You know Olsen, he’s a pussy. Won’t risk anything. If they did call the cops, that oughta call them right the fuck off.”
The football helmets on the blanket reminded Neil of something he had half known and ignored those nights they’d spent drinking and planning the abduction of Taylor Olsen. “Shit.” His voice came out flat, monotone. “They brought back the death penalty here. If they find us, they’ll kill us.”
Rex laid the blanket on the bed, then moved behind the folding chair Taylor was strapped to. He untied the ropes holding the little arms and legs. “No one is going to find us, or put us in the fucking chair. We’ve got a plan and this doesn’t change it.” He tossed the ropes behind him, then stood and slid his hands under the boy’s shoulders. “Here, help me get him onto the bed. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone, living in one of those little Mexican towns down by the sea.”
The thought of the sea focused Neil. The abscess was still inside, swirling somewhere deep and unreachable, but the cloud of panic that had fallen over him had begun to lift at the thought. The sea. It was where Rex had promised Neil they would go after the kidnapping. A new and far away place, free of the numbing pain of the past. When he’d imagined it, lying awake in the bed he’d shared with his wife before she left, the sea had been more than just a place without his memories of Meredith and the empty room he had painted baby blue and the job he had been laid off from; it’d been a place of peace, a place where the past didn’t matter, a place on the edge of something so powerful that history forgot to exist. It was there, at the sea, where Neil and his wife would be reunited, where, together again, they would bury their grief in the constant churning of the waves.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil moved over to the chair Taylor Olsen sat dead in, then bent to lift the body by the ankles. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he saw Taylor’s shoes were boat shoes, gray canvas with leather strap laces. The shoes alone probably cost more than the suit Neil had been married in. He took them gently, the insides of the shoes were light, as though filled with bird bones, something too fragile to be held between his own ugly hands, then lifted. Trying not to squeeze too tightly, Neil pretended he was carrying a sandbag, something necessary and vital that would be carefully lain to keep a sudden surge of brackish water at bay. Together, Neil and Rex placed the body on the bed, then wrapped it in the threadbare Huskers blanket.
They left the house several hours later in separate cars.
The call had gone exactly as Rex said it would, and though Neil had allowed himself to believe Rex when he said they’d make it through, that they wouldn’t be caught, he remembered how he’d felt in those first moments after seeing the body, how he had felt something open up inside himself, a hole too dark to see the bottom of, it’s edges muddy and crumbling. It didn’t help that he was the one with Taylor’s body in the trunk of his Camry. That while Rex was off collecting the cash, Neil was stuck with the physical reminder of everything that had already gone wrong.
Neil took the highway towards Omaha, then exited near South Bend. The radio off, he followed surface roads until he came to a narrow tree covered turn off leading to a small campground that sat on the bank of the Platte River. The abscess swirled in him as he turned down the lonely road. He tried to think of the money, to imagine a kind of hope in it, but he knew a hundred thousand dollars wasn’t enough to erase the memory of a dead kid. It wasn’t enough to forget how cold the skin of Taylor’s ankles had felt against his hands or the strange inert weight of the child’s body.
He doubted a million would be enough to forget.
The road emptied into a small snow packed lot. Camping signs and cement trash containers and small standing charcoal pits lined the edges of the lot, the black shape of the river churning beyond. Dirty snow lay on top of gravel and frozen mud. Wind pushed through empty trees. Neil parked at the river's edge, the yellow headlights of his car shining out over the thin capped crests of the slow moving water.
An image came to his head then, startling him, something he’d seen on TV once, back when Meredith had been pregnant: a parade of slow-moving paper boats with little lanterns set softly inside, moving down the silver river of some far off European city. He remembered how moved Meredith had been by it, how her feet had felt in his hands, how warm and comforting their living room had been, and he remembered wondering what happened to the boats when the water finally broke the seal of the paper, if they continued floating without shape or if the weight of the lantern dragged them down to the bottom of the river. He’d meant to look it up, maybe try it with the kid once he was old enough.
The memory passed, leaving him uncomfortable in its wake. When he felt calmer, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his phone. Rex would be at the mall now. He would be picking up the cash any minute.
Tell me when you got it he texted, then placed his phone in the cup holder by his side.
Neil waited for a response. Time stretched out, deep and unnavigable. He took long, drawing breaths, each an attempt at stilling the swirling emptiness inside. If things had gone according to plan, Rex would be headed back to the house with the cash. Or, because he’d insisted on going to the pick-up armed, he’d could be lying dead on the floor of the Oakview mall, his life and their money gone, just like the boy in Neil’s trunk.
Five minutes went by, then ten. No answer.
“Okay,” he said to the empty car. “Okay.” He picked up the phone again, hands shaking. The abscess inside settled as Neil dialed the number from memory.
“Neil? I can’t talk now. You don’t - ”
“Mr. Olsen, I’m so sorry.”
The phone was silent for a long time, and in that silence, Neil imagined he could hear the sound of waves and the pounding of blood in Mr. Olsen’s temples and the scream his wife would make when he gripped her by the arm and told her what Neil had said. “I don’t know how I got talked into it. And I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you how sorry.”
When Olsen spoke again, his voice was clear and surprisingly soft. ”It’s okay, Neil. Whatever you did. You did the right thing by calling me, you know that, right? I want to help you. I can help you make it okay.”
“I wish you could, but you can’t.”
“What are you saying, Neil?”
“It was Rex…”
“Rex? Neil, is that who picked up the money? Is that who it was, Rex Piccillo? He has the money, Neil. He has it. All of it. If you didn’t want to do it, it’s okay, just tell me where Taylor is and I’ll help.“
Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. Neil wiped them away, then went to the trunk, Olsen telling him all the ways he could help him as he moved. Neil opened the lid, then looked down at Taylor Olsen’s body.
“We can make this okay, Neil,” Olsen said. “We can make it like this never happened. It was Rex. I know it was Rex. I know you, Neil. I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. I know you wouldn’t have meant for things to go so far.“
In the dim light of the trunk the boy’s face was a peculiar shade of newborn pink. Neil reached down and touched it the way he imaged Mr. Olsen had done the first time he’d ever held his son. The child's father still in his ears, Neil wiped his fingers over Taylor's open eyes. He tried to close them, but the lids yawned up again, the clouded pupils staring up past Neil and the open lid of the trunk and into the overcast winter night. “I thought you’d want to say goodbye,” Neil said. “I know I would have liked that.”
A screaming sound grew from the phone, alien and wordless but something Neil recognized and knew intimately. It was the sound of overpowering pain, deep and ancient and made all the more wretched by its commonality. Crying again, Neil reached down and held the phone to the boy’s ear. He didn’t think Taylor could hear his father, but he wanted to believe that somehow some part of the boy could feel the vibrations of his father’s sound through the skin.
“That’s okay,” Neil said, unsure if he was talking to Taylor or Olsen or himself. “That’s okay for now.” He placed the phone in the back corner of the trunk, then picked up the dead boy, cradling him in his arms. He walked down the bank of the river, his feet sliding over the hardened mud. With every step he felt that strange hole in him grow deeper, the bottom a suctioning pool that spun and spun, pulled by some unseen underground current, widening the crevasse. He wondered how long it had been there. If there had always been an emptiness in him, or if there’d only been the potential for one, an area of soft ground just waiting for some horrible tide to wash everything away.
At the water’s edge he paused, the lights of the car shining over the small waves. A small sheet of ice moved past, broken off from one of the larger floes that gathered around the pillars of the bridge spanning the interstate just upriver. The cold biting at his face, Neil wondered if Rex really had gotten the money, or if Olsen had lied to him. He wondered if Rex had kept to their plan or run off on his own, and if he had kept to the plan, how much cash would be back at the house? But if he hadn’t run off, why hadn’t he texted Neil back?
As he stepped into the water, Neil decided he didn’t care.
The coldness of the river shocked the breath from his lungs. He felt his legs go numb up to the thighs, his jacket weighed down by the sudden soaking. Neil took another step, his boots sticking in the muddy bottom. He almost slipped, righted himself, then moved deeper into the river, Taylor’s body still held tight. He waded in until the water was up to his chin, until the boy had become loose in his arms, buoyantly tugging at his grip. Neil’s teeth smashed wildly against themselves and his clipped breaths fell out of him, fogging his vision until all he could see was the body of the child and the water and the night.
The river bottom had torn away his boot and sock, leaving his toes suddenly free. He flexed them, enjoying what little he could feel, then moved on. He was deep into the river now, almost halfway to the middle, the current pulling all around him. He was far enough out to let the body go and ensure it would be carried downstream, that it wouldn’t wash ashore against the dirty brackish bank of the campground, but the idea of letting the little body go here, where it was still shallow enough for Neil to stand, seemed disrespectful somehow.
He kicked off, pushing towards the heart of the river.
Neil moved with the body until his feet could no longer feel the river bottom and the water that splashed against his face slid down his throat. Kicking to stay atop the small, rushing waves, tears and river water frosting over his eyes, Neil finally let go of what was left of Taylor Olsen.
Water pulled at the creases of the boy’s pants and the joints of the boy’s knees and arms, and Neil watched as the current grabbed the facedown boy and carried it further and further away until the body was gone, as indistinguishable and dark to Neil as any other ice floe on the river’s surface.
When the body was gone, in that darkness and cold, Neil felt a strange calmness settle over him.
His arms had grown heavy and he found his whole body was now difficult to move. Small waves sloshed against his face and eyes. Water slipped down his throat and chilled his teeth. He turned and looked for the headlights of the Camry but could not see them. He’d moved downstream, away from the riverbank and the recreation area he’d parked in.
He kicked harder, trying to right himself against the current and the river bottom below, but his knees had gone stiff and his only movement was a kind of bobbing along the surface. There was no panic, only a dim awareness of himself and the water and the shape of the river stretched out before him. The banks of the river grew no closer, and he lost himself in his rhythm, his mind going foggy and then blank, his only thought of the pull of the water and the slow cycle of his up and down movement on the surface.
The river carried him further along, the current pulling at the seat of his pants and the spread of his jacket. Neil took a deep breath and felt his legs be pulled out from underneath him. He thought of the paper boats then, of how they had glided down the glass surface of the river in that far away stone city. He thought of how much he would have liked to take his own son there to watch. They would have stood on the cobblestone bank and watched the fleet of boats flowing by, his son’s hand in his own. He could not remember what he and Meredith had planned to name the boy, had he come, but now he knew the boy should have been named Taylor. The boats would go by, and after watching silently, the boy would have looked to him and asked what happened to the boats, and Neil would have answered that, while he didn’t know for sure, he imagined the weight of the lanterns eventually tore through the paper, opening a hole, and when it did the bodies of the boats filled with water, and as the water came in they would spin and spin and then be pulled under, where they would dissolve and break up beneath the waves.
Neil was on his back now, the current moving faster.
It had been cold, but he’d become used to it, just as he'd gotten used to the smell of Meredith’s constant sickness as she’d carried their doomed child. The hole inside, the abscess that had felt bottomless and churning was gone now. Instead, he felt at peace, as though he belonged there in the river. He could feel its waters filling him, making him whole.
His head slipped underneath the water, and when it broke the surface again, Neil realized he wasn’t sure how long he had been under. He couldn’t feel the cold anymore. He could not see the darkness of the sky. He barely felt the water washing over the edges of his face. It wasn’t so bad, floating like this, Neil decided. He could go on a while longer.
The sound of waves in his ears, Neil let the current carry him downstream.