This is not a joke.
Your name is Kevin Waters and your daughter’s name is Molly. Am I correct? This is what she told me as she sat in the back of my car, that’s all. You should perhaps consider closing your windows at night, Kevin. The rose trellis is looking stunning on that back wall, but think, is it really worth it? As I said, this is not a joke, Kevin, and I’d like you to read this very carefully. I want you to go to the Natwest bank on Shaw Street. You must take out exactly £10,000 from your current account. Yes, I know you have it. Lucky you, Kevin. Saving were we? Don’t be careless, Kevin. Life is for living. I want it in cash. 5000 in 50s. 4000 in 20s. 1000 in 10s. If you act out of line, this encounter will not end pleasantly for you. Do not answer any bank teller’s questions. Do you understand me?. I want you to take the money in a zip-locked bag, and I want you to ring me on the phone number you’ll find on the back of this letter. Ring me from your home phone. Not your mobile. Think of your mobile as obsolete. Don’t underestimate me, Kevin. Molly is a screamer and I’m an impatient man. The next part of our adventure together is a tricky one, and I hope you have your head screwed on. If you put one foot wrong, she’s gone. Follow my instructions carefully. Do not call the police. Do not call your wife. Any revelation of the information enclosed in this letter will result in serious consequences. Do not take this lightly, Kevin. Your daughter is safe. But do not doubt that she is in very grave danger. I look forward to your call, Kevin. You have until 12am.
Contrary to the very first line of the letter, my initial thought was that this was indeed a joke. I spun round, expecting to see my wife standing in the hallway, home early from work and waiting to meet me with a churlish laugh and a thump on the shoulder. But she wasn’t this eloquent, was she? Her handwriting was much more feminine and she always wrote with a blue pen, not black.
And so I fell. I tumbled to my knees, thumping hard onto the laminate flooring sending tingles up my thighs. Because no, this was not a joke. How could I have known? I think it was the picture that did it. On the back of the letter, the author had stayed true to their word. A phone number was scrawled slightly askew, positioned underneath a small polaroid photograph. Molly’s pink pyjamas were identifiable by the small stain on the chest. Orange juice. Yesterday morning. Her green sippy cup. Molly’s eyes were cloudy with tears like after a supermarket tantrum and the duct tape over her mouth had stretched her pink skin at the cheeks.
My heart was no longer a heart. You cannot say it was broken – it was quite the opposite. It punched through my chest like it was driven by pistons, pumping to my ears until all I could hear was this. It’s strange, isn’t it? That horror that comes over you when alone and in distress. How much I wanted to bawl like a little child, dropping my jaw and screaming out in long, ugly, gargling cries. But nothing would come. Not a thing. My inner monologue was stuttering and my limbs ceased to move.
Phone. Where was my phone? The lifeline in every modern situation, before anything else is considered. Even in the strictest consequences, life or death, I still strived for my phone. But every memory had run from the fire that roared in my brain to the point that if you had asked me my own name right there and then I would not have been able to recall it. Only hers.
Pocket. Was it in my pocket? Try it. Yes. Yes it was. But the black object shaking in my hands could have easily been a brick to me at that moment in time. I willed my finger to jab at the screen, but no light appeared. A second attempt brought a flash of life, but the image of my wife holding on to Molly in the dress we had bought for her birthday was too much to ask for my hands to cope with. The phone clacked onto the floor in front of me, face up, now apologetically black.
I think that’s when the tears came. Silent, but sudden, not sending a single wrinkle through my face. I was utterly useless. I needed so much to be useful right then but it was impossible. Superhero Dad who had rescued papier mâché disasters and caught tumbling plates from errant little hands was now reduced to a puddle on the hallway floor.
But something would have to make me move. And, sure enough, it did. The noise upstairs did that quite nicely. I shot up like a dead animal reanimated by an electric shock. Yes, the walls creak, it was an old house, and the pipes had a tendency to contract in the cold weather – but that noise was made with force.
The shuffling across the landing propelled my body into a second wave of panic – a much more mobile one, with my brain now thrown into overdrive. What had not made sense just 30 seconds ago now made even less. The thumping in my ears grew to painful heights, but I could still hear. I could still hear perfectly clearly. Oh, how I wished that I couldn’t.
I scrambled for the phone again, this time hitting unlock with precision, fuelled by the growing sound that I followed with my eyes across the ceiling like a knife dangling from a loose string.
- Yes? Emergency. This was definitely an emergency. So in my panic I ignored the rules. Rules were not considered in emergencies. And this, with no shadow of a doubt, was an emergency. But it was not just I that had broken the rules. This was not meant to happen. None of this was meant to happen. But of everything, this was surely the most unexpected.
All was a blur. The creaks and shunts from above came slowly but with increasing intensity. Every second dropped like a leaking tap. The countdown had started and the sound was nearly in sight.
A dial tone burbled in my ear as her toes appeared on the top step. Five. Then Ten. Her little feet. Pink pyjamas. Green sippy cup. Her unspoilt face as she looked at me and said.
“Daddy, I’ve had a bad dream.”