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A Hostage Situation

A short story excerpted from Manuel Gonzales' new novel, The Regional Office Is Under Attack!.

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We were already at a loss — tired and scared and confused — when they grabbed Harrison by the collar, sharp enough we could hear the seams of his shirt rip, and then stood him up and then shot him in the head. They did this and we wilted, the bunch of us, like lilies in high heat. Some of us screamed or sobbed out, but the rest of us looked on in silent shock.

Then they shuffled us out of the conference room, where they’d been holding us, and into a smaller office — Laura’s — which made Laura feel better at first, to be in a familiar setting, until one of us reminded her that she’d probably die here, and while a lot of us used to joke about how we spent so much of our time here we’d probably die here, too, none of us — Laura least of all — liked how this joke was playing out in real life.

All of us were frightened at this point but a lot of us were confused, too. A lot of us still thought that we were nothing more than agents for an exclusive travel concern catering to the ultra-rich and famous and didn’t know that our jobs, our physical bodies, even, were cover for what really went on here, went on downstairs, nearly a mile below us. When we split into two factions — those who wanted to devise a plan of escape or attack and those of us willing to wait until they let us go or shot us like they shot Harrison, whichever came first — we were also split, though not all of us realized it, by what we knew and what we didn’t know. Those of us who knew the truth about our jobs, about the travel agency and the real agency below us, were willing to wait. Maybe we didn’t know exactly what was in store for us, but we had a good general idea and for us, knowing what we were up against, there seemed to be little else for us but to wait. While one half of us were thinking about our families, our friends, our plans for dinner or for the weekend, the other half were wondering how long it would be, really, before they shot us all or simply piped some noxious gas into Laura’s office through the vent.

The rest of us, in other words, were thinking only of ourselves and how long we had to be ourselves.

The rest of us, in other words, were thinking only of ourselves and how long we had to be ourselves.

Still. We didn’t do anything to stop the those of us who wanted to escape. Nothing more, anyway, than exchange knowing glances at each other. We decided in the end, What’s the harm?

We decided, We’ll probably be shot anyway, so might as well be for planning a foolhardy and imperfect escape plan as for anything else, right?

We ransacked Laura’s desk and cabinets and collected three boxes of paper clips, a number of dull pencils, two staplers, a gauzy colored blue rock Laura used as a paper weight, two pairs of scissors, one of which we noticed she had stolen from Larry in accounting, and an unopened key-ring pepper spray canister.

We considered the paper clips and made a joke about chewing gum and MacGyver, but then we were stumped.

Someone opened the pepper spray and tapped the nozzle, which must have broken after so many years bouncing around inside Laura’s desk, and a wide expanse of pepper water spit out in all directions, and for a moment, we were coughing and wheezing, our eyes were red and blurred by tears, and we swore at whoever used the god damn pepper spray, but that didn’t last as we were too spent to shout or swear or rail for too long.

Too spent from coughing.

Too spent from our morning commutes and the drudgery of booking yearly world tours for snarky, over-privileged douchebags on yachts big enough to contain every one of the possessions we’d crammed into our shitty apartments in Queens, and from the pain in our lower backs and the false promise of lumbar support, from the soreness in our hands, the carpal tunnel syndrome that made it impossible to open mayonnaise jars, and from, finally, this, this last worst insult. Not just the men in black with their guns and their shoving and pushing, the bullet through Harrison’s skull, the strong urge to piss ourselves, the sore dryness of our throats, the drips of sweat running down our backs to pool at the waistbands of our underwear, the meager tools for our escape, the small chance that we’d make it out of this alive — spent from not just all of this but now the pepper spray, too.

The pepper spray left us winded and undone and all discussion of escape fell away as we sat in a huddle, gasping and rubbing the pepper out of our eyes.

They took away our cellphones, our watches, too, and shot the crap out of Laura’s computer, and for an excruciating eternity, none of us knew what time it was. Then Milo remembered his pedometer, which was surreptitiously clipped to the inside of his belt, and which doubled as a watch. What was more surprising than the fact that Milo’s pedometer was overlooked was that Milo, a truly fat fuck, had a pedometer at all, the poor thing clipped inside his pants — who knew he could have fit anything inside his pants? — and he was proud of it, we could tell, even though we made him explain what it was a couple of times and why he had it, even though we made him suffer through our not-so-gentle ribbing. Then, when we finally asked, What time is it, Milo looked at the pedometer and then he shook it and he pressed a couple of buttons and at this we figured he’d never really used the thing, figured it had been giving him false readings this whole time because he hadn’t set it up, had just clipped it to himself and figured that was that, but then he let out this deep, heavy sigh.

It’s five till, Milo said, and, groaning, we demanded, Five till what, asshole?, and he sighed again and said, Ten, and we were dumbfounded.

Hours had passed, we thought. Many, many hours must have passed. We knew this, were certain of this. Our stomachs growled because we’d missed not just lunch but that break in the middle of the afternoon that we all looked forward to when we sent Jennie across the street to pick up some coffees and bags of chips. It had to have been late afternoon, at least. We were sleepy and worn out because the day was coming to a close, and we’d been thinking to ourselves, What will our families think, what will our friends around the city think when we don’t show up at home, at that great little bar in Red Hook, at our dinner date; we had been thinking, When will demands be made, what will the nightly news cover, when will our loved ones receive the phone calls asking for the interesting details of our lives, for recent photos of us?

But no. It had been 45 minutes and already we’d grown restless and irritable, and it would be hours and hours still before anyone missed us, before anyone even noticed we were gone.

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Stacy suggested we play a game, to pass the time better. The rest of us ignored her or made faces behind her back. We considered the idea of escape again, and with nothing better to do, no recourse, no email or internet or smartphones to pass the time with, with only each other and nothing much in common — how many more times would we have to listen to Carl go on about the square-dancing class he’d started taking in Bushwick, really? — even those of us who had been against planning an escape were on board now, and with the earnest resolve of the truly desperate.

William (whose last name was Jefferson and who was always reminding us that he’d been named after the former president, as if that information would endear him to us somehow) took charge because he was that guy, the guy who took charge but to whom no one paid the slightest attention.

He snapped his fingers at Laura and demanded a legal pad and pencil, even though they were on the desk right in front of him. Then he drew a map of the office and stared at it. He said things like, So what we need to do first is, and Okay, okay, this is good, this is great because, and, I wonder if maybe instead we should. He obviously had no fucking clue what to do next but was trying to make it sound like he was unknotting some thorny but brilliant plan, but we let him at it with the sad understanding that this delusional activity was all the glue holding poor William together.

In the meantime, Jackson, who played shortstop in our softball league, and whose batting average was consistently in the high 300s, and who, it was once rumored, could have gone pro, and who some of us called Action Jackson, though never right to his face because we didn’t want to come on too strong, huddled a group of us together and said, stage-whispering, So, what do you think? One of us is sick and when one of the guards comes in to investigate we smash him over the head with that blue paperweight Laura’s got on her desk? Take his gun and go from there?

We looked at each other and then at Laura’s paperweight and then back at Action Jackson and then nodded and said, Sure, why not?

The thing was this: We all knew the plan was doomed to fail. Most of us didn’t think it would work even so far as to get someone to come into Laura’s office to investigate. It was such an obvious ploy. Sure, the men in black outside Laura’s office, if they were even within earshot, would know exactly what we were up to, would have seen any kind of hostage-situation movie clip made in the past 30 years, and would ignore us once Jackson started yelling through the door.

But still. We tried it anyway. Michael was on the floor doing a decent job, we thought, of having a heart attack and some of us wondered — what with all the double bacon cheeseburgers he ate for lunch — if he’d had some experience in this role.

Jackson, too, good old Action Jackson, was a surprisingly good actor. There was a timbre of real fear and anxiety and concern in his voice. His eyes showed the fear, too, which spoke to a true devotion to his role since no one but us saw his eyes as he was standing on the other side of the door with Laura’s blue paperweight hefted over his head.

In any case, none of us, not even Jackson, thought there was more than a slim chance that one of the goons would come through Laura’s office door, so it was a bit of a shock that the door opened, that it opened as fast as it did, as if the guys were just waiting for us to pull some kind of stunt like this, and more of a shock — to all of us but to Jackson especially — when the guard caught Jackson’s arm mid-swing, how cleanly and quickly the guard broke Jackson’s wrist, and then pulled him — the strongest and most athletic of all of us — into a tight hug as if he was some kind of rag doll and then snapped him, snapped Jackson like he was that cookie part of a Twix in a Twix commercial. Jackson’s eyes widened when this happened but that was all, really. It all happened so fast that there wasn’t any pain to speak of, not in his eyes, anyway. Not in his face. No grimace, no groan. Maybe he was dead or maybe he was simply paralyzed, but when the guard let go of him, he landed on the ground the way a thing that didn’t have control of itself landed. Through this, Michael scrambled to his knees and stumbled against the desk and pulled himself shakily to his feet and the guard, finished with Jackson, pulled his gun and aimed it at Michael’s head. We held our breath. We didn’t even look at Jackson, crumpled on the floor. We wanted to rush to him, to throw ourselves prostrate over him, to sob uncontrollably, but the gun pointed at Michael shut us all up, made us keep perfectly still.

Then the guard smiled and then the guard left and we didn’t understand what just happened and we didn’t know what was going to happen next and we had no fucking clue as to what we should do.

A long timed passed and we didn’t move. We didn’t rush to Jackson’s side, didn’t sob over his prone form, didn’t do much but stare at the door, at the space where the guard had stood and aimed his gun at one of us after having ruined another of us. Michael was breathing hard and Laura — poor Laura — whimpered to herself. Jenny sat heavily into Laura’s office chair. But otherwise, we were quiet and still. Even William Jefferson, who might have normally took this opportunity to make some sort of speech — a disappointed in our poor efforts speech or a stern but encouraging father-figure speech or a rallying the troops speech — even William was quiet.

He was the first to move. He dropped to his knees and then lowered his ear to Jackson’s face. Jackson’s eyes were open and wide still, as if his face, his expression had become stuck. We couldn’t see any up and down movement in his chest. His body didn’t look comfortable lying as it was. William was there for some time, his ear pressed to Jackson’s chest and then to his face and then back to his chest.

Then he looked up and shook his head, which was the wrong thing to do considering what he said, which was, I don’t know how, but he’s still breathing.

We were so relieved by this we didn’t even bother to tell William that the sad and wistful head-shake wasn’t proper head-movement protocol for when someone you thought was dead turned out to be alive. Instead, we rushed to Jackson’s side, where we quibbled immediately: lift him, leave him, set his head at an incline, cover him with a jacket, let him sleep, wake him up.

What we agreed on, though, was the need for a doctor because, though we didn’t say it, we knew what would happen without a doctor.

And also, to be honest, there were those of us who wished, secretly perhaps, that he’d been dead outright.

We weren’t cruel. We understood he was in some way better off not being dead, but not much better off, we thought.

We thought about his wife and his son, who was 8 and who would bat-boy for us at games. We thought about the change waiting for them when we got out of this. Their once strong and handsome husband and father now irrevocably broken. Doctor’s bills. Physical therapy, wheelchairs, feeding tubes, an elaborate blinking system with which to communicate. She would cheat on him, or would leave him entirely. We’d met her enough times to suspect she was that kind of woman. The son would grow up weak and servile, or a bully. Jackson would become a burden they would come to despise and one day he’d wish that he’d have just died and would regret that his condition, which prevented him from living life, would also make suicide a near impossibility. The irony of that won’t be lost on him. We considered his life laid out for him and shook our heads at the travesty of it and wondered at the thin line between dead now and the life waiting for him in the future.

 We considered his life laid out for him and shook our heads at the travesty of it and wondered at the thin line between dead now and the life waiting for him in the future.

But mostly, those of us who wished he’d died did so because we dreaded the idea of spending the next few hours in here with Action Jackson — what a stupid name — incapacitated and possibly dying, but certainly not being helped by lack of proper medical administrations. We imagined good odds on him dying before this all ended. And if he didn’t die, if he regained consciousness, we imagined him making demands we couldn’t fulfill. Or even if he were to lie there stoic and strong, how depressing would that be, the constant reminder of him? How bad for team morale would that be? And while we didn’t have a good plan for what to do next, whatever plan we came up with would surely involve leaving him behind, and won’t that be easier, we thought to ourselves, with him already dead?

We kept this to ourselves, though. We touched him gently on the shoulder or the cheek, careful not to move him or make him worse.

Then we moved away from him and by unspoken consent — and no matter that Laura’s small office was even smaller with all of us packed in there — we stayed as far away from that part of the room as we could for the rest of the time we were trapped there.

***

Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and the novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, and winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. A graduate of the Columbia University School of the Arts, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.

To learn more about The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, click here.

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