Stockholm Syndrome (flash fiction)
This is the first, rough draft of a new piece of flash fiction I'm working on called "Stockholm Syndrome." I already know some areas that need work, but I'm curious to see what other people think about it in this early stage.
A couple questions to consider:
How do you feel about the future perfect tense (would, will, etc)?
What about the last paragraph? Is it really necessary?
Thanks in advance for comments!
I am pumping gas on the way to my honeymoon when a black van sidles up next to my car. A twenty-something leans out. He has the well-worn bulk of a bulldog slightly past its prime, and the hoodie he wears is covered with flowing graffiti calligraphy in neon hues, swirling greens and pinks and electric blue.
“Hey man,” he says, “want a free stereo system?”
He has a thick beard at least three inches long, his eyebrows are bushy brown caterpillars, and his eyes twinkle with a hint of jovial mischief. He looks like a psychedelic Santa Claus in youth, as he might have been before Mrs. Claus and the weight of the world fell on his shoulders.
I shake my head. “No thanks,” I say, “I don’t have anywhere to put it. Too much luggage. Thanks, though.”
He laughs. “That’s a poor excuse. Listen, I got receipts, warrantees, everything. I just don’t want it any more; you look like a guy who could use it. Once in a lifetime chance, man, make no mistake.”
I waffle. I have no idea who this is. Who offers a complete stranger something for nothing? There’s no way it’s not a scam. But I could certainly use some new speakers. My imagination begins to run wild: what might happen if I agree? What would happen if I said “Ok, what the hell?” and took the bait?
The twentysomething would beam. “I knew you’d come around,” he’d say, stepping out of the lofty van. He’d amble over to me and stick out a hand. We’d exchange names, shake. His grip would be cool, firm. “It’s right around back here,” he’d say, taking me by the shoulder and steering me toward the vehicle.
I’d shoot a glance at the convenience station, wondering what my wife might think if she sees me leaning into the cargo area of a stranger’s van. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” I’d say.
“For sure, for sure,” he’d reply, and then the back door would be open before me. The interior of the van would be as dark as the paint job. The front and passenger windows would be darkened; there are no other seats in the vehicle beyond the driver’s and passenger’s. I’d lean in, trying to find the stereo in the darkness, knowing there is no stereo, waiting to see if anything will happen. I’d be fully conscious of the man’s grimy salted breath on the back of my neck, and when I’d turn to say “I don’t see anything,” his grin would widen. He’d wink, as if there’s some secret joke that I’ve failed to understand, before planting a meaty freckled hand to my chest and pushing me backwards into the proposed electronic promised land.
I would wake up some hundred miles down the road, my throat a barren tube of sandpaper and my limbs cramped and sore. And then the questions would start. My captor would begin with surface questions, things that were easy to answer, questions about where I was born, what my job is, what places I’ve been to and things I’ve seen. At first I’d be uncomfortable, not willing to share details of my life with this lunatic who’s in the habit of kidnapping, but after a little while I’d loosen up. The open road can be a desolate, lonely place, nothing to mark time except for white dashes, green mile markers, gas this exit, McDonald’s that. Kerouac’s grand, vast America has been reduced to a small network of onramps; talking is just about all there would be to do.
But then the questions would turn more personal. Ideals. Anxieties. Phobias. And I’d start talking. Really talking. His questions would be concise, open, perfectly engineered to keep me talking. He would set trains of thought in motion and race them at breakneck speed through the twisting mountain tracks of my subconscious, his reactions constantly throwing coal into the blazing engine. After each statement I’d make, he’d nod in agreement and throw out a phrase of affirmation. “You’re damn right you did,” he’d say, “That’s how you do it,” “Don’t let ‘em give you that shit,” “Nobody should pull that stuff with you,” so on and so forth. It’d be empowering, really, like having a congregation full of amens at your back.
I would tell him everything, everything important that had ever happened to me. My most complex feelings about my wife, the struggle to stay afloat in a world that has no compassion for the people it crushes, the irksome chains that bind us to job, home, relationships, the constant work for approval, for recognition, for self esteem that drives us on and on to the brink of destruction, all of it would flood out of me and into my captor’s waiting ears. It would feel as if he were taking all my burdens and making them his own.
His face would change with the conversation. As I poured out my life’s weight, he would be hypnotized, his eyes far away and glassy and his mouth twitching slightly at the corners. Sometimes I would have to remind him to watch the road, but he would only nod and touch the wheel with two fingertips, as if to say the van was a living steed that knew its way home.
After I had finished, I would slump back into the passenger seat and fall asleep, so completely had I been drained. I would wake up, perhaps hours later, and it would start all over again. He would want to drain every last drop from me. The more I said, the fatter and more content he seemed to grow; after a while his cheeks were flushed and his palms left small shapes of sweat on the wheel.
He’d tell me about his life. Perhaps he never went to college and grew sick of being a wage slave. Maybe he’s a failed musician or artist. Maybe he’s just a vagabond by nature; some people are born into wanderlust like others are born into red hair or blue eyes. Regardless of his background, he now lives by his own merits, his own destiny. I am a small cog in his life, part of what makes things interesting. The van, he’d say, is all that he owns, and he tours the country in it, picking up hitchhikers, capturing fellow travelers in the broken down gas stations and desolate parking lots that litter the countryside around highways. Their wallets fund his careening journey; their conversation keeps his voyeuristic obsession with people well fed. He picks up a cross-section of America on the move: people going towards jobs, people running away from problems, people merely criss-crossing, destination hoppers who always have someplace to be, artists of all shapes and qualities, bankers, whores, students, store clerks, lawyers, managers, men and women, but no boys and girls.
Eventually we’d develop trust. I would begin to see things his way, come to love the undulating slate of the highway, to dread being locked in place, locked with the heavy burden of living. I would become beholden to no one and no thing, no wife to keep happy, no relationships to maintain, no job to drag myself to, no prospects or investments, nothing to lose and nothing to gain. We’d become a partnership, this bulky traveler and I, neither one asking anything of the other.
I would learn the ways of my captor. After my first successful seduction, he would pat me on the back and smile that twinkling smile that drew me into the van to start with. From there it becomes an addiction; I need to replicate that first capture, the tingling fingertips, the shaky vibration deep in my guts that threatens to tear loose my whole frame, the sweet release and exultation that floods through every part of me after a successful grab.
Eventually single captives would cease to slake the thirst we have for new conversation and new experiences. We would escalate to pairs, suckering in college kids on road trips, old couples on vacation, brothers and sisters driving home. After we tire of that, we’d gather more and more captives, drivers ed instructors and their students, sedans packed with gamers on their way to an anime convention, business men and women carpooling to a seminar on fiscal responsibility. The van would be a madhouse, packed to bursting, the suspension groaning, the underbelly almost scraping the asphalt of the highway. Inside, it would start to smell like human filth and our captives would become animals in a cage.
But our lust for conquest would be insatiable. We’d lose all respect for the capacity of the van. More and more people come piling in; it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel. When the radiator pops and the van slows to a crawl on the side of an Arizona back road at one p.m., our freedom would burst into flame right along with the engine. Our ticket to nothing, to an eternity of watching the world go by through the eyes of travelers, has stalled and coughed its last. Our captives would pour out the back door and into the desert in all different directions, each one soon lost on the shimmering horizon.
We would look at each other, my captor and I. His hair, now shot through with streaks of grey and spliced with a fine layer of sand, his face, wrinkled and pinched together with a sallow tint, his eyes, squinted and bloodshot from years of staring straight ahead. He has no answer. He shrugs his shoulders and turns away down the road.
The pump thuds to a stop. The tank is full; I jiggle the nozzle and then replace it
“Hey man, you want the stereo or not?” my would-be captor says, still leaning out the window. “I’m telling you, it’s legit.”
I turn and look at my wife, who is now advancing across the parking lot. The setting sun is on her face and she squints her eyes against it, covering half her face with a raised arm and the sweating slushie she holds in her hand. She smiles when she sees me looking; I replace the gas cap.
“No thanks,” I say. “Give it to somebody who needs it.”
There are no free spirits. There are no free rides. There is always something binding us, something cruel and soft and anxious and giddy, binding us to life. There can be no breaking them, these lovely chains; you don’t want to break them. The chains are your responsibility: you forge the steel, you drive the stakes, you snap shut the padlock. Happiness must be built, inch by inch by inch.
"Of course you can go home again; it's just a motel"
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