Portrait of a Kidnapping

April 2006

On the long stretches of highway, her mom lets her sit up front next to her, although Bridge has to slouch down when they pass a police car, because they are being a little bit naughty and seven‑year‑olds are supposed to sit in the back. The road is a dark ribbon through the trees, like in the story about the little girl escaping from the witch Baba Yaga and her chicken‑footed house.

You don’t have to think like that, Mom says. There’s no one chasing us. But her eyes flick to the mirror again and again, and when she has to pull over at the gas station to take her pills so she doesn’t get fits, she sits waiting in the car, watching the parking lot, before she goes inside, and Bridge can’t stay behind because I need you to pick the best doughnuts.

“Isn’t this nice, the two of us getting away? Surprise vacation!”

“I miss Bear,” Bridge says. “And also Daddy.” Her dad is a very busy guy. And motels don’t allow galumphing Labradors. But it doesn’t feel like a vacation. It’s not very fun. And she thinks maybe this is her fault because of what happened at her mom’s lab, which isn’t really her lab, but the professor lets her come there to do her studies and sneak Bridge in. It’s boring there. She is not allowed to climb the high wooden shelves or roll down the corridors on one of the wheelie chairs or play with the plush toy of a brown worm with a knot tied in its tail that sits on top of the filing cabinet, and I’m not sure how your dad would feel about you playing with Ebola. Bridge does know. He would not approve.

Mostly, she sits at Mom’s desk reading comic books or doing her puzzle, which has five hundred pieces, but she lost four of them, so there is a hole in the unicorn’s butt like a tiger took a bite out of it. But one day she did something bad while Mom was busy talking to the other brain scientists. So much talking! She didn’t mean to. The rats were so cute and she just wanted to let them out so she could play with them, and she didn’t even really manage to open the door to any of their cages, which aren’t really cages but kind of glass nests. Mom got in so much trouble with her boss and with Daddy.

She shouldn’t have been there unsupervised, her dad said, talking through his teeth, and What were you thinking and This is why — and he caught her looking and pulled Mom into their bedroom by the elbow and slammed the door and their voices were soft and spitty like cobras and then suddenly loud and high like yappy dogs, and Bridge could hear the words What do you expect me to do and I can’t live like this and Ungrateful is what you are, I didn’t even want —and Bridge just turned up the TV because it was her fault they were fighting because of the rats. So maybe it’s also her fault they need some girl time now, her and Mom.

They find a youth hostel near Bourbon Street, which smells gross on Sunday morning, like wet garbage and sick. Jo does card tricks for the backpackers from South Africa and New Zealand and Ireland and tells them how she used to live here, in New Orleans, but not in the tourist part, when she was their age, or younger, actually, fourteen when she ran away from home — and for the first time, Bridge thinks: Oh, is that what we’re doing?

They drive all around the city, past old‑fashioned houses and under twists of highway near the stadium, past the cemetery with white marble tombs like a Lego city for ghosts. They visit a broken house with graffiti and holes in the floor and Mom says this was her home when she was a runaway, but Bridge doesn’t want to go inside because it’s creepy and there are spiky thistles everywhere and what if the roof falls down?

They stop at restaurants and bookstores, Mom always asking around for people she used to know. Once a man followed them back to the car. Hey, pretty lady, I can help with that, maybe you can help me, know what I’m saying and Mom snarled, Fuck off, and that only made him mad, so they had to run and jump into the car, and he came after them and slapped the back windshield as they drove off.


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