The Ones Who Got Away

By Stephen Graham Jones

Later we would learn that the guy kept a machete close to his front door. That he kept it there specifically for people like us. That he’d been waiting.

I was fifteen.

It was supposed to be a simple thing we were doing.

In a way, I guess it was. Just not the way Mark had told us it would be.

If you’re wondering, this is the story of why I’m not a criminal. And also why I pick my pizza up instead of having it delivered.

*   *   *

It starts with us getting tighter and tighter with Mark, letting him spot us a bag here, a case there, a ride in-between, until we owe him enough that it’s easier to just do something for him than try to scrounge up the cash.

What you need to know about Mark is what you probably know already: he’s twenty-five, maybe, and smart enough not to be in jail yet but stupid enough to be selling out the front door of his apartment.

Like we were geniuses ourselves, though, yeah.

*   *   *

As these things go, what started out as a custody dispute somehow turned complicated, and whoever Mark was in the hole with came to him for a serious favor, the kind he couldn’t really say no to. The less he knew, the better.

What he did know, anyway, or at least what he told us, was that somebody needed to have the fear of God placed in them.

This was what he’d been told.

In his smoky living room, I’d looked to Tim and he was already pulling his eyes away, focusing on, I don’t know. Something besides me.

The fear of God.

I was stupid enough to ask just what, specifically, that might be.

*   *   *

You see it in all the movies, the next few bits of the story. Or, if you’ve been there, I guess then you see it pretty much everywhere, even the kid shows.

It’s the Story of Man.

Casting it in those terms makes it feel bigger, makes your part in it all feel smaller. Maybe even inevitable, like fate, like an after-school special where I pick up a cigarette in slow motion when I’m twelve, then the camera backs off me and it’s three years later, that cigarette hardly burned, and across from me my best friend since third grade is laughing the way he does when he’s not all the way stoned yet, and making up things that would put the real and true fear of God in a person.

Watching a movie like that, I’d lean forward, shake my head no. Tell myself to run.

*   *   *

Across town, of course — this isn’t the movie, but me looking back, to what had to have been happening — a little kid named Nicholas is sitting in another living room. His parents’. And they’re there, of course, one of them a step-, it doesn’t matter which. Not to us.

The things he doesn’t know, too. It’s like a joke itself.

But maybe it’s better that way. Give him a day or two more of just sitting there, thinking the world’s a good place to be. That his dad’s still the same guy he’s supposed to be, the same guy he’s always been pretending to be.

If he were telling this, though, here’s what he’d say: this is the story of why I threw that brick through that window, over and over, until I went to jail.

What he still wouldn’t know would be what really happened that night.

Which isn’t to say I do.

*   *   *

By ten, when I knew it was time to be slouching out of Mark’s, what we finally hit on as the real and true proper fear of God was to think you’re going to die, to be sure this is the end, and then live.

We thought we were helping Mark with his dilemma, of course.

Sitting across from us, he crushed out cigarette after cigarette, squinched his face up as if trying to stay awake. Every few minutes he’d lean his head back and rub the bridge of his nose.

The trick of course was that there couldn’t be any bruises or cuts.

Of all the things we’d thought of, the knives and guns and nails and fire and acid and, for some reason, a whole series of things involving the tongue and pieces of wire, the only thing that left a mark on just the mind, not the body, was tape. Duct tape. A dollar and change at the convenience store.

This is how you plan a kidnapping.

*   *   *

Mark’s suggestion that it should be us instead of him in the van came down to his knowledge of the law: we were minors. Even if we got caught, it’d get kicked when we turned eighteen.

To prove this, he told us his own story: at sixteen, he’d killed his stepdad with a hammer because of all kinds of shit involving a sister, and then just had to spend two years in lock-up.

Our objection — mine — was that this was all different: we weren’t going to kill anybody.

So, yeah, I was the first one of us that said it: we.

If Tim heard it, he didn’t look over.

The second part of Mark’s argument was: What could we really be charged with anyway? Rolling some suit into a van for a joyride?

The third part had to do with a tally he had in his head of bags, cases, rides.

Not counting tonight, of course, he added. Because we were his friends.

*   *   *

The rest of it, the next eighteen hours, are boring. Looking back, I know my heart should have been hammering the whole time, that I shouldn’t have been able to talk to my parents in the kitchen.

The truth of it is that there were long stretches in there where I didn’t even think about what we were doing that night.

It was just going to be a thing, a favor, nothing. Then we’d have a clean tab with Mark, and Mark would have a clean tab with whoever he owed, and maybe it even went farther up than that.

Nicholas, of course — I call him Nicky now, I guess — he was probably doing all the kid things he was supposed to be doing for those eighteen hours: cartoons, cereal, remote control cars. Baseball in the yard with the old man.

At five after six, Tim called me.

Mark had just called him, from a payphone.

We had a pizza to deliver.

*   *   *

On the pockmarked coffee table in Mark’s apartment, all we were going to need: two rolls of duct tape, two pairs of gloves, and an old pizza bag from a place that had shut down when Tim and me’d been in junior high.

The gloves were because tape was great for prints, Mark told us.

What that said to us was that he wasn’t setting us up. That he really would be doing this himself, if he didn’t want to help us out.

Like I said, we were fifteen.

Tim still is.

*   *   *

The van was a salmon that had floated back downstream. It was primer black, no chrome, so obviously stolen that my first impulse was to cruise the bowling alley, nod to Sherry and the rest of the girls, then just keep driving.

If the van were on a car lot in some stupid comedy, where there’s car lots that cater to bad guys, the salesmen would look back to the van a few times for the jittery, ski-masked kidnappers, and keep shaking his head, telling them they didn’t want that one, no. That one was only for serious kidnappers. Cargo space like that? Current tags? Thin hotel mattresses inside, to muffle sound?

No, no, the one they wanted, it was this hot little number he’d just gotten in yesterday.

Then, when the kidnappers fell in with him, to see this hot little number, one would stay behind, his eyes behind the ski mask still locked on the van.

The reason he’s wearing a ski mask, of course, is that he’s me.

What I was thinking was that this could work, that we could really do this.

*   *   *

Instead of giving us a map or note or anything, Mark followed us out to the curb, his head ducked into his shoulders the way it did anytime he was outside, like he knew God was watching or something. He told Tim the address, then told Tim to say it back.

2243 Hickory.

It was up on the hill, a rich place.

Sure? Mark asked as we were climbing into the van.

I smiled a criminal smile (this is where just one side of your mouth goes up), didn’t answer him.

2243 Hickory. A lawyer’s house, probably.

We were supposed to take whoever answered the door. Nothing about it that wasn’t going to be easy.

*   *   *

To make it more real, we stopped for a pizza to put in the pizza bag. It took all our money, but this was serious business. Another way to look at it was we were paying twelve dollars for all the weed and beer and gas Mark had burned on our undeserving selves.

In which case it was a bargain.

The smell filled the van.

On the inside of his forearm, like an amateur, Tim had written the address. Instead of ‘Hickory,’ though, he’d just put ‘H.’ All he’d have to do would be lick it a couple of times and it’d be gone.

Like 2243H meant anything anyway.

Then, I mean.

Now I drive past that house at least once a month.

*   *   *

Because records are part of my job now, I know who was living at that house when I was fifteen.

A family. Their name’s not important. It’s the same as any name.

It was Dickerson, though.

There, I said it.

The Dickersons.

The dad wasn’t a lawyer, but a family court judge.

For a long time that didn’t make any sense to me, but then, when he finally died, I saw his obituary. Because he’d been a judge, his picture was in there. Maybe it was from that same week, even.

In it, he’s just a guy in a big thick robe.

And he’s black.

Unlike Nicky, whose blond hair I could see from behind the wheel of the van. He was leaning over, all his weight on one leg, like he could see me too.

And maybe he could.

*   *   *

We finally decided it should be Tim who went to the door. Because he already had a windbreaker on, like pizza guys maybe wore. And because he had an assistant manager haircut. And because I said that I would do all the taping and sit on the guy in the back while we drove around.

How I was going to get the tape started with my gloved fingers, who knew.

How I was going to stop crying down my throat was just as much a mystery.

In the van, Tim walking up the curved sidewalk to the front door, I was making deals with anybody who would listen.

They weren’t listening, though.

Or, they didn’t hear that I was including Tim in the deals as well.

Or that I meant to, anyway.

*   *   *

As for the actual house we went to, it was 2234 Hickory, not 2243 like it should have been. Just a couple of numbers flipped. Tim would probably just say that he put them in order in his head. If he could still say.

As to what happened with whatever custody case we supposed to be helping with, I never knew, and don’t have any idea how to find out.

When I finally made it to Mark’s the next week, somebody else answered the door. He had all different furniture behind him, like the girl at the portrait studio had rolled down a different background.

What I did was nod, wave an apology, then spin on my heel — very cool, very criminal — walk away.

What I would be wearing when I did that was a suit, for Tim. Or, for his family, really, who had no idea.

Anything I could have said to them, it wouldn’t have helped.

*   *   *

This is the part of the story where I tell about meeting Tim in the third grade, I know. And all our forts and adventures and girlfriends, and how we were family when our families weren’t.

But that’s not part of this.

I owe him that much.

We should have cruised the bowling alley on the way up the hill that night, though. We should have coasted past the glass doors in slow-motion, our teeth set, our hands out the open window, palms to the outsides of the van doors as if holding them shut.

The girls we never married would still be talking about us. We’d be the standard they measure their husbands against now. The ones who got away.

But now I’m just not wanting to tell the rest.

It happens anyway though, I guess.

*   *   *

Nicky answers the door in his sock feet, and Tim holds the pizza up in perfect imitation of a thousand deliveries, says some made-up amount of dollars.

Then, when Nicky leans over to see the pizza sign on the van (I think), Tim does it, just as Mark played it out for us fifty times: lobs the pizza into the house like a frisbee, so everybody’ll be looking at it, instead of him and who he’s dragging through the front door.

On top of the pizza, stuck there with a toothpick, is the envelope Mark said we had to leave.

Putting it in the box was our idea.

It was licked shut, but we knew what it said: if you want whoever we’ve got back, then do this, that, or whatever.

As the pizza floated through the door, I saw me in the back of the van with Nicky, playing games until midnight. Making friends. Tim driving and driving.

We were doing him a favor, really. Giving him a story for school.

But then the pizza hit, probably a couple of feet at least.

Mark was twelve miles away, maybe more.

I was only just then realizing that.

*   *   *

The way some things happen is like dominoes falling. Which I know I should be able to say something better, but that’s really all it was. Nothing fancy.

Domino one: the pizza lands.

Domino two: Nicky, who’d turned to track the pizza, turns back to Tim, like to see if this is a joke, only stops with his head halfway around, like he’s seeing somebody else now.

Domino three: Tim leans forward, to hug Nicky close to him, start running back to the van.

Domino four: what I used to think was the contoured leg of a kitchen table, but now know to be one of those fancy wooden pepper grinders (my wife brought one home from the crafts superstore; I threw up, left the room), it comes fast and level around the frame of the door, connects with Tim’s face, his head popping back from it.

Domino five, the last domino: Tim, maybe — hopefully — unconscious, being dragged into the house by Nicky’s father, who looks long at the van before closing the door.

*   *   *

The reason I can tell myself that Tim was unconscious is the simple fact that Nicky’s father — whose name I didn’t have to look up, because it was in all the papers for months and months, and is even in books now — didn’t come out for me too. Which is a question he would had to have asked: whether Tim was alone.

So what I do now is just pretend he was knocked out. That he didn’t have to feel what happened to him over the next forty-five minutes, like Nicky did. Or saw, anyway. Maybe was even forced to see.

In the papers, it was why Nicky’s mom left Nicky’s dad: because what he did to the drugged-up kid who broke into their home, he did while Nicky watched.

It involved a kitchen chair, some tape, a hammer. Pliers for the teeth, which he pushed into Tim’s earholes and nostrils and tear ducts.

How long I was in the truck was forty-eight minutes.

It’s better if Tim was knocked out the whole time.

*   *   *

What people say now — it’s still the worst thing to have ever happened — what they say now is that they understand Nicky’s dad. That they would have done the same thing. That, once a person crosses the threshold into your house, where you family is, that he’s giving up every right to life he ever had.

This is what you do if you’re a traitor and in the same break room with people saying that: nod.

This is what you do if you hate yourself and can’t sleep and have your hands balled into fists under the sheets all night every night: agree with them for real. That, if anybody tries to come in your door one night, then all bets are off.

And then you’re a traitor.

Nevermind that, a few months before Nicky’s juvenile delinquency bloomed into a five-year stretch with no parole, you went to his apartment, to buy a bag. He was Mark all over, right down to how he narrowed his eyes as he pulled on his cigarette, right down to how he ducked his head into his shoulders like his neck was still remembering long hair. And you didn’t use anymore then, hadn’t since the night before your wedding, would even stop at the grocery store on the way home, to flush the bag over and over, until the assistant manager knocked on the door, asked if there was a problem.

Yes, there was.

It was a funny question, really.

The problem was that one time while your friend’s head was floating across a lawn, a machete glinting real casual in the doorway behind it, a thing happened that you didn’t understand for years: the life meant for Nicky, you got. And he got yours.

That’s not the funny part, though.

The funny part, the reason the assistant manager finally has to get the police involved in removing you from the bathroom, is that you can still smell the pizza from that night. And that sometimes, driving home to your family after a normal day, you think it was all worth it. That things happen for a reason.

It’s not the kind of thing Nicky would understand, though.

Nevermind Tim.

*   *   *

“The Ones Who Got Away” will be included in the forthcoming anthology “Phantom: Going Beyond the Scare,” edited by FiveChapters alumnus Paul G. Tremblay with Sean Wallace.