After blinking a few times, Edwin rolled over on the hard surface beneath him. His eyes refused to adjust to the darkness around him. The last thing he remembered was locking up his store and now he had no idea where he was. He touched a spot on the back of his head that was radiating pain and recalled the sound of footsteps scuffing the pavement. Thinking it was someone passing by, he wasn’t in a hurry to check it out and that was when he felt the blow to his head. Somebody nearby must have seen the whole thing and called the police already.
Edwin pushed himself to his feet and took short steps with his hands out. He didn’t make it far before touching a wall. Keeping one hand against the wall, he walked the perimeter of the room and found that it was probably no bigger than his guest bathroom. His hand brushed against a new surface which he assumed was the door, but he couldn’t find the handle. Edwin beat his fist against the door.
“Hey!” he called out. “Why am I here?”
“Good evening, Mr. Morrison,” the deep voice greeted.
Was it still evening? So he hadn’t been here long. Edwin slowly turned full circle, hoping to find the source of the voice.
“Can I get a little light in here?” Edwin called out.
The response was a suppressed laugh. “No. But I’ll tell you why you are here. You see, my favorite past time is people watching. Observing their daily lives and interactions each other. I learned quickly that humans are such selfish, fickle creatures, refusing to give the time of day to a stranger who doesn’t contribute to their egocentric life.”
“Who are you?” Edwin demanded.
“Who am I? I’m the man you called trash. You pushed me out the door and told me not to come back when I simply asked for food.” The man’s tone turned sinister. “Do you feel so powerful now, Mr. Morrison?”
Edwin’s throat tightened. He remembered that day clearly. The man obviously hadn’t seen a shower in months. Of course he rushed him out. Besides, people never want to help themselves and Edwin didn’t give handouts. This didn’t seem like the same man.
“I’m not who you thought I was. I was testing you. You should know as well as anyone, things are not always as they appear,” the man said, reading his thoughts. “It was as fake as your happy marriage. How is little Mia, by the way?”
Edwin struggled to breathe, his heart racing. “If you hurt my daughter-”
“I have no interest in hurting her, Mr. Morrison, but I want you to think of her throughout your time here. I want you to remember that your selfish nature affects everyone around you. But I’ve had enough of the small talk, let me explain the game we’re going to play. First, you should know death is inevitable. I will give you a series of questions and choices.”
Edwin turned full circle. “Look, I’m really sorry. I was having a bad day and-”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, Mr. Morrison. Each time you answer the question incorrectly, the walls of this room will move closer. I hope you don’t mind tight spaces.” It was obvious he was smiling.
“Let’s start with our first question. You’ll have half an hour to answer. If you cannot answer, that will count as an incorrect guess.”
“If you have me, you want to share me. If you share me, you don’t have me. What am I? Good luck, Mr. Morrison.”
Edwin sunk down to the floor with the question repeating in his mind. He wouldn’t make it out of here alive. That’s what his captor said, so why should he go through all this trouble. He needed to buy time and come up with a plan. The man also said he would be given choices. What kind of choices? Edwin shook his head and forced himself to focus on the question. Thirty minutes wasn’t long enough under this kind of pressure. Then it clicked.
“I have the answer,” Edwin called out.
“Remember, if it’s wrong, you don’t get a second guess. Your space will become more confined than it already is.
“It’s a secret,” Edwin blurted out, then held his breath for the answer.
“I’m afraid that answer is-” The man paused and Edwin felt sick. “Correct. I’m a little disappointed that I won’t get to see you squirm more.”
Edwin let out a heavy breath.
“Are you ready for your next question? A bat and ball cost one dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”
“Ten cents,” Edwin said immediately. “Come on. Is that all you got? I own a business. Money is my thing.”
Laughter echoed through the room. “I thought so, too, Mr. Morrison. But this time you’re arrogance failed you. You are incorrect. The answer is five cents. You should have taken more time to think about the question.”
“That’s bullshit! It’s ten!” Edwin yelled. The walls moved in on all sides. Edwin could touch the cool metal surface of each wall when he extended his arms.
“I told you the bat is a dollar more. The ball is five cents, so the bat is a dollar and five cents, equaling a dollar and ten cents.”
The man was right. Edwin did answer too quickly. He was so sure about his answer that he didn’t take the time to double check. That won’t happen again.
The next question was a riddle that he missed and the walls moved closer. Edwin could no longer stretch out and his breaths were more labored as his anxiety rose.
“You have a decision to make now,” the voice said. “I mentioned that death was inevitable, but I didn’t say your death. As you can see, wording is everything.”
Edwin felt hope rise. He didn’t know what that meant exactly, but he knew the guy was saying he had a chance to live.
“You can exchange your death for another’s. Abram has been working with you for the past year. You gave him a chance when no one else would, yes? It’s only fitting for him to repay the debt.”
“He’s just a kid. I would never,” Edwin growled.
“You would never want to return home to your daughter? Abram has nothing going for him. He has no idea where his mother is and his father is an alcoholic. You’ve had to bail the kid out of jail multiple times. Have you not? Without you he’ll probably end up dead anyway and your death would be in vain. Do you want Mia to live without her father if she doesn’t have to?”
“I told you to keep her out of this!” Edwin shouted.
Edwin thought about Mia and the way she would try to squeeze him in a bear hug to show him how strong she was. He thought about the things he would never do with her again. The simple things like teaching her how to tie her shoe or how to read. She would impatiently turn the page before he was finished to find out what happened next. A smile plucked at the corners of his lips, followed by tears that burned his eyes.
“Watch me, daddy!” she would demand as she hopped and twirled on her tiptoes. At the end of the night, she would snuggle up next to him and fall asleep as he watched the news. What he would give to have that now.
“Well, what’s it going to be, Mr. Morrison?”
“I-” His breaths were short and his heart was racing. Abram was like Edwin’s son and the boy idolized him. Either way Abram lost, whether Edwin lived or died, but that wasn’t the case with Mia. Edwin didn’t want her to grow up without him. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.
“I can’t.” Edwin slid down to the floor, running his hands through his hair.
“Have it your way. Are you ready for your next question?”
“Sure,” Edwin replied, defeated.
“Forward I’m heavy, backwards I’m not.”
Edwin pondered the question. He gave this one more thought. “Ton.”
“Very good, Mr. Morrison.”
The man chuckled. “Patience is a virtue. I’d like to give you the chance to think about your slow death. I’ll be back soon.”
The lack of space was getting uncomfortable and Edwin felt the panic begin to squeeze his chest again. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. Every minute felt like an hour, except when he was answering one of the questions. Edwin closed his eyes and felt himself nodding off.
The man’s voice startled him. “I hope you enjoyed your nap.”
Edwin rolled his eyes and waited.
“I’m going to give you another opportunity to get out of this.”
A sliver of light peeked into the room for the first time and a knife dropped to Edwin’s feet. He stared at the knife before picking it up.
“You can choose a long, slow death, or end it quickly.”
He gripped the handle tightly and drove it into the wall where the compartment was, but the impact only hurt his hand. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it, you son of bitch! I’m not doing it for you!”
The response was a quiet laugh, like a parent watching a toddler throw a tantrum.
“Tsk, tsk. Such aggression. I don’t reward bad behavior.” The walls moved in closer.
“Here is your next question. A man wants to enter an exclusive club, but he doesn’t know the password, so he watches the bouncer to figure it out. A woman comes up and the bouncer says, “12.” The woman replies, “6,” and the bouncer lets her in. Another woman comes up and the bouncer says, “6.” The woman says, “3,” and the bouncer lets her in. The man feels he’s heard enough and goes up to the door. The bouncer says, “10,” and the man replies,”5.” The bouncer tells him to get lost. What should the man have said instead?”
This time the minutes flew by and Edwin could not figure out the answer. He would have said five, too. He thought on the question until his head hurt.
“Time’s up,” the man said before the walls moved closer.
The walls pressed against Edwin’s chest and he could hardly move his arms. It was very uncomfortable and his breaths were shorter.
“You have another exchange available to you. This time it’s Brian. You’ve been buddies since college. He’s the reason you have everything, am I right? You couldn’t have opened your business without his loan. But he’s still out there, a reckless bachelor with nothing to lose. No kids, no wife, no strong attachments. His life for yours.”
Edwin muffled his laughter. After a moment, he finally responded. “I would like a moment to think, please.”
“Of course,” the man replied.
Nobody should die for him. Brian was there through the worst of times. Edwin was placed here as a consequence of his own actions. His thoughts wandered to Mia again. He leaned his head back and drummed his fingers against the wall behind him, then gave a single motion that he knew the man would see.
“As you wish, Mr. Morrison,” the man said.
Edwin closed his eyes, sucked in a breath, and waited to see what happened next. He waited for what seemed like an eternity before a door opened and light flooded the small space that was left.
“Good evening, Mr. Morrison. Until we meet again.”
Edwin ran down a long hall and out the door, refusing to look behind him. Before the door shut behind him, he heard a wail of agony. Seven months ago, Brian slept with his wife. Brian always lived with the notion that he could give and take whatever he wanted. Not this time. Edwin drove until he reached his house in time to tuck Mia into bed.