Ransom ~ Ross Wilcox

 

Jacob Carbunkle joined our seventh grade class three weeks before the Milburn’s three-year-old son was kidnapped. He told us his parents were going to do it because that’s what they did for a living.

There were fifteen of us seventh graders, and in our little town, we’d never had a new student. On the first day of school, our teacher, Mrs. Douglas, stood with Jacob at the front of the room. Even she didn’t seem to know what to do or what to make of the new student.

“Class,” Mrs. Douglas said. “This is, um, Jacob Carbunkle.”

Beanpole thin, Jacob’s stringy hair draped past his eyes. We couldn’t see much of his face. He shook his head, and his bangs parted like curtains. For a moment we saw his grey eyes.

Cain Sanders muttered, “Are we supposed to say hi?”

Mrs. Douglas said, “Jacob, would you like to tell us a little about yourself?”

Jacob shrugged and said, “I’m from North Dakota. It’s really cold up there.” He paused for a moment. Then his index finger popped up, as if he’d remembered something. “Oh yeah, my parents own their own business and they work from home. It’s a kidnapping business.”

We looked to Mrs. Douglas. She removed her glasses. She rubbed her eyes with her thumb and index finger. Then she put her glasses back on and chuckled. Then she told Jacob to take a seat in the back. He sat next to Ted Gunderson and Marissa Schmitz.

“He said it’s a really simple business: his parents kidnap the kid and get money and then give the kid back,” Marissa told us at lunch.

“It’s like you steal something and then sell it back to the person you stole it from,” said Ted Gunderson.

We nodded. It seemed simple enough.

Marissa said, “He told us he would babysit and collect data on the kids.”

“Data?” we asked.

“Yeah, like height and weight and whether or not they minded his commands,” Ted explained. “And how long they like to watch cartoons for. And how quiet they can be for long periods of time.”

We laughed. We thought: we’ve never heard of pieces of data likes this.

“That’s what he said,” Marissa said. Then she shrugged.

Those first few days, Jacob sat at a table alone in the corner of the lunch room. He stooped over his tray like our grandparents at the nursing home. We figured he was waiting for us to come to him.

So in a spirit of inclusiveness, we invited him to Josephine Reynolds’ thirteenth birthday party, which was being held at her house that Friday.

“Really?” he said. He looked up at us. His bangs parted. Patches of red pimples dotted his jawline. “Does Josephine have any younger siblings?”

We told him she had a five-year-old brother named Tyler. He said that was pushing it on the upper-age limit.

“Do Josephine’s parents make a lot of money?” Jacob asked.

We told him her mom was a CPA and her dad delivered mail on county rural routes.

“I’d love to come,” Jacob said.

Josephine’s party was par for the junior high course. Her parents parked their cars on the street and cleared space in the garage for a dance floor. We all brought our own burnt CD’s with dance playlists mixed intermittently with slow songs. At first, we sat on the foldout chairs, eating chips and salsa and drinking soda. Incrementally, we took to the dance floor. Every half hour or so, Josephine’s parents would peek in, scan the scene, then wave goodbye.

Jacob didn’t dance. He stayed seated in a chair talking to Josephine’s little brother, Tyler. Jacob would gesture wildly, as if emphasizing high-points in a story, and Tyler would laugh. Once, Sally Winters asked Jacob to dance during a slow song, and he said no, he needed to collect more data on Tyler.

“Jacob is really good with kids,” Katie DeLong said.

“Do you think his parents will kidnap Tyler?” Kim Oberly teased.

We looked at Josephine, the birthday girl. “That’s a good one, Kim,” she said uneasily.

“I bet he’d make a really good father,” said Bobby Sellers.

The following Thursday, Jacob wasn’t in school.

That was the day Billy Milburn turned up missing at the grocery store.

*

It was completely inexplicable. That’s the word Sally Winters told us her mom used.

The story went like this: Gary Milburn was grocery shopping with Billy, he and Mandy’s three-year-old son. He pushed his cart through the canned foods aisle. Billy followed closely behind, running his fingers along the edges of the shelves. It was how Gary and Billy always grocery shopped. Gary stopped to consult his list. His eyes moved back and forth from the list to the shelf. Then he reached forward and grabbed a can of kidney beans. When he turned back to the cart, Billy was gone.

Gary ran around the store, calling Billy’s name. He was nowhere to be found. No fellow customer or employee had seen the little boy. The parking lot was empty save for three cars, one of which was Gary’s.

“Are you sure you even brought Billy with you?” Mark Munger, the store owner, is said to have asked Gary.

*

Two days before Billy disappeared, Jacob told us at lunch that it would happen. He said, “My parents are going to kidnap the little Milburn boy.”

We weren’t sure we’d heard him right. So we asked him to repeat what he’d said.

“The Milburn boy,” Jacob said. “His parents run the bank. You see, in kidnapping, the risk is high, so you want the reward to be worth it. So you always target the people with the most money.”

We were silent. Then Connor Billings said, “That makes sense. From a financial standpoint, I mean.”

We looked at each other. We had more questions.

“When are they going to do it?”

“This Thursday,” Jacob said. “Mr. Milburn takes his son grocery shopping on Thursday afternoons. The store’s usually almost empty.”

“Then what?” said Marissa Schmitz. “I mean, what do you do after you kidnap him?”

Jacob pushed his bangs out of his eyes. He looked at Marissa like she was stupid. “You write a ransom note.”

“Like with letters cut out of a magazine and glued together?” asked Shane Livingston.

Jacob shook his head. “My parents use an old typewriter.”

“Where do they keep him?”

“In the basement.”

“For how long?”

“Until they deliver the requested amount of money to the agreed-upon location.”

*

All the adults of our town joined in the search. Our parents scoured the park, the playgrounds, the little tree groves surrounding the trailer courts. They searched under the bushes and evergreens of innocent neighbors. They checked the dugouts of the baseball fields, the sand traps of the golf course, the rows of cornfields at the edge of town. Geoff Olsen even took his boat ten miles up and down the nearby Sioux River, using his side scan sonar system to see if little Billy had sunk to the bottom.

Jacob’s stick-figure parents joined in the search – a maneuver necessary not to arouse suspicion, Jacob told us. They walked next to Mark Munger, the grocery store owner. Occasionally, the three of them would stop to discuss something. Mr. Munger’s eyes would scan the other searchers. Then they’d keep walking.

We joined in the search, too. We walked next to Jacob, eager for any details he was willing to disclose.

“So how’d you do it?” asked Bobby Sellers. “I mean like, how’d you pull it off?”

Jacob pointed at his parents and Mr. Munger. “Well, you see the grocery guy? He’s in on it. He made sure to distract the few customers who might have seen anything. Then my mom nabbed little Billy when Mr. Milburn wasn’t looking. She ran with him to the parking lot, where my dad was waiting in a junk car they bought solely for this purpose. Then they drove off.”

“What’d you do?” asked Marissa Schmitz.

“I was at the edge of the parking lot on my bike, keeping watch,” Jacob said. “If any car came by, I’d give my dad the signal.”

“What’s the signal?” asked Ted Gunderson.

Jacob whirled his hand above his head in a spiral.

We nodded approvingly. It was a good signal.

*

The Milburns received their ransom note two days after Billy disappeared. It was typed on old, yellowed paper in Courier font.

“You always want to wait at least a day before delivering the ransom note,” Jacob explained at lunch.

“Why?” Cain Sanders asked.

Jacob shrugged. “It’s just what my parents say. I think it’s to allow desperation to sink in, so that they’ll be more willing to pay.”

Jacob’s parents were asking for ten million dollars.

“My parents said there aren’t even ten million dollars in our town’s bank,” said Bobby Sellers.

“You always ask high,” said Jacob.

“Ask high?”

Jacob nodded. “You intentionally ask for more than they can pay. Then they get on the news and say they don’t have that kind of money. Then they tell you how much they can pay, and you take that.”

“I get it,” said Connor Billings. “It’s like a business negotiation.”

“Exactly,” Jacob said. Then he looked at Connor. “You’d be good at this.”

We looked at Connor. His cheeks reddened. He shifted in his seat.

“I don’t know,” Connor said. A tiny smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Maybe.”

*

The search had gone on for one week when we asked Jacob if we could see little Billy.

“I mean, he’s in your basement, right?” asked Josephine Reynolds.

Jacob nodded. “He’s probably watching cartoons right now. Or maybe my mom is reading Dr. Suess books to him. Or maybe he’s taking a nap.”

“So can we see him?” asked Ted Gunderson.

“That’ll be hard,” Jacob said.

“How come?”

“Because my parents are always home now,” Jacob said. “They won’t let me have anyone over when we’ve got a kid in the basement. If you would’ve asked a week ago, you’d have been welcome to come over.”

We sighed.

Then Jacob’s index finger popped up. “But I could sneak a few of you in at night. Only like three or four. Five at the most.”

We looked at one another.

“What’s the fairest way to decide?” asked Sally Winters.

*

The Milburns appeared on the six o’clock news. It was a station out of Platte Lake, the only town of any size in our vicinity. We watched over supper with our families.

“We just want our little boy back,” said Gary Milburn, his eyes read and bleary.

“We’ll pay,” said Mandy Milburn. “We’ll pay all we can.” Then she broke down and sobbed on her husband’s chest.

Gary held up his right hand, open-palmed. “We’ll pay five million. I know it’s five less than they’re asking for, but we just don’t have that kind of money. ”

We seventh graders chewed our meatloaf, our scalloped potatoes, our green bean casseroles. We nodded and thought: ask high.

*

On the second Saturday after the kidnapping, Jacob snuck five of us in through the back door and into the kitchen. He had to unlock the door leading down to the basement.

It was an unfinished basement, with concrete walls and floors. They had set up a small living space for little Billy: a couch, a rug, a television, a box of toys in one corner, a pile of Dr. Suess books in the other.

Jacob pointed to the blowup mattress next to the toys. On it, a lumpy little figure laid motionless.

“That’s him,” Jacob said.

We squinted, not able to see very well in the darkened basement. We couldn’t be sure, but the figure looked more like little pillows stuffed under a blanket than a little boy.

“So he just stays here all day?” asked Sally Winters.

Jacob nodded. “He’s a very well-behaved child.”

“Doesn’t he ask about his mom and dad?” asked Ted Gunderson.

“Sure,” Jacob said. “But we just tell him they’re on vacation and that they’re bringing him back something special. You always want to give the child something to look forward to. It keeps them placated.”

We didn’t know what that word meant, but we nodded. It was a good word.

Just then, we heard footsteps upstairs. Then the basement door opened.

Jacob shuffled us off to a dark corner beneath the stairs.

“Who’s there?” a woman’s voice called. She descended the stairs. “Billy? Are you up?”

“It’s just me,” Jacob said. He met the woman at the base of the stairs. “I was just checking on Billy.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well I have to be at the church early in the morning. Ethel can’t play piano. She’s sick. I thought I’d just stop by now and drop off some new books.”

“Thanks,” Jacob said.

From our vantage point, we could see the woman hand Jacob a stack of hardcover books.

The woman said, “How’s he doing?”

“Fine,” Jacob said. “Did you see the news the other night? It shouldn’t be too much longer.”

The woman nodded. “Okay then,” she said. She turned and walked back up the stairs.

When she’d left, we came out from our hiding spot.

“Was that Mrs. Vondrak?” asked Connor Billings.

Mrs. Vondrak was the town librarian. She also played piano at the Methodist church.

Jacob nodded. “She’s in on it. She was one of the customers in the grocery store that day.”

We scratched our heads.

“Who else is in on it?” asked Josephine Reynolds.

“Saul Hawley and Tina Mueller. They were the other two customers in the store that day,” Jacob said. Saul Hawley was a farmer and Tina Mueller was a stay-at-home mom. “Let’s see. There’s Mr. Munger of course, the store owner. Oh, and we had to get Mark Foltz.”

“The Chief of Police?” Cain Sanders asked.

“Well yeah,” Jacob said. “How else are we going to safely collect the money? You never actually meet at the location on the ransom note. That’s a diversion. You get a crooked cop to make sure all the other cops are staking out the decoy location. Then you meet somewhere else.”

“Oooh,” we said. Then we nodded. The decoy location seemed key.

It was silent for a moment.

Sally Winters pointed at the blow-up mattress. “Is he moving at all?” she asked.

Jacob stepped in front of her hand, blocking Sally’s view. “He’s fine. He’s just sleeping,” Jacob said. Then Jacob’s index finger popped up. “Oh yeah,” he said, looking at Ted Gunderson. “Your dad is in on it, too.”

My dad?” Ted asked.

Jacob nodded. “Who do you think sold us the junk car?”

Ted’s dad sold used cars. Everyone in town said they were junk.

*

The meet-up was arranged for late Monday night at one in the morning.

“It’s the time you’d least expect,” Jacob explained at lunch earlier that day. “Nothing is ever happening on a Monday night.”

“Monday Night Football,” said Shane Livingston. But we ignored his comment.

“Where will the cops be?” asked Marissa Schmitz.

“They will be out by the Sioux River: the decoy location,” Jacob said. “While we will be right here in town at the cemetery.”

The select five of us got to watch the whole thing. We got there early at 12:30, and for half an hour, we simply sat in darkness. Then at 1 AM, the Milburns’ Land Rover pulled into the cemetery. They drove up to the middle, where the large cross tombstone stood. They parked in front of it, their headlights trained on the cross so that we could see everything.

Jacob’s mom, wearing a grey hazmat suit, emerged from behind the tombstone. She held little Billy’s hand. Gary Milburn jumped out of the car, two huge duffle bags draped over each shoulder. He dashed to his son and fell to his knees. He dropped the duffle bags to his side and said, “It’s all there.”

Jacob’s mom let go of Billy’s hand and he ran to his father’s arms. Gary kissed the top of his son’s head over and over. Then he scooped him up, stuffed him in the car, and the Milburns drove off.

That was it. It was completely dark again.

*

The Milburns appeared on television, once again reunited with little Billy, all smiles. A journalist for TIME wrote an article about them. Some New York author wanted to write a book about the whole thing.

Jacob Carbunkle stayed until the end of the school year.

“You don’t move right away,” he explained. “That just looks suspicious.”

We nodded. But we also high-fived because Jacob had become like the cool older kid who knew all the things that we didn’t.

Jacob and his parents moved at the beginning of summer. They told everyone they were moving to Omaha, but that’s not actually where they were moving.

“Remember the decoy location?” Jacob said. “It’s kind of like that.”

We had no idea where they moved to. It gave us more pleasure that way, made Jacob and his parents seem slightly deified. On the day they left, we watched the Carbunkles’ blue Subaru head south of town, towards Interstate 29.

“They’ll probably turn around once they’re down the road,” said Connor Billings. “Then they’ll head in the opposite direction.”

Shortly after they left, several townspeople spent surprising sums of money on things we didn’t know they could afford. Chief of Police Mark Foltz took his wife on a Nordic cruise. Saul Hawley, the farmer, bought ten more acres of land near the Sioux River. Tina Mueller, the stay-at-home-mom, started a college fund for her three young children. Mrs. Vondrak digitized our town’s miniscule library. Mr. Munger, the grocer, started a Health Foods aisle that even included some organic produce. Ted Gunderson’s dad bought six legitimate new cars to sell in the hopes of rebranding his image. And Mrs. Douglas, our seventh grade teacher, bought one of those cars – a new BMW coupe, no less.

Suspiciously, the Milburns themselves built a new house at the edge of town, a four-bedroom country style with a huge, wrap-around porch. They paid for it up front in cash.

*

That summer, we didn’t have our driving permits yet. The Billy Milburn kidnapping was the most interesting thing that had happened in our lives. And without it, we were bored, restless, and empty.

So we rode our bikes around town, shouting at whoever would listen that there were townspeople in on the Billy Milburn kidnapping. We did it for fun, just for something absurd to shout while the sun beat down on our sunburned faces.

We even pointed out those who we knew for a fact were in on it. For example, three of us ran into the grocery store and yelled, “Mr. Munger was in on the Billy Milburn kidnapping!” We did the same thing to Mrs. Vondrak in the library.

In both locations, there was a moment of awkward silence after we’d shouted. Then the customers laughed, as did Mr. Munger and Mrs. Vondrak. Then the customers went back to consulting the labels on the fat-free Greek yogurt cartons or thumbing through books on shelves.

We wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of our town’s newspaper. It named everyone who we knew was involved, even insinuated that the Milburns themselves were complicit. It was laughed off, and the phrase Everyone Was In On It became a saying around town.

We even got Marissa Schmitz, who was a lifeguard at the community pool, to pry at Billy one day at swimming lessons.

“Every time I asked him about the Carbunkle’s basement,” Marissa told us later, “little Billy looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. He said, ‘Who are the Carbunkles?’”

The next year at Josephine Reynolds’ fourteenth birthday party, we remembered fondly how, the year before, Jacob Carbunkle had sat and talked with Tyler the whole night.

“He was vetting him, you know,” said Connor Billings.

We were older now. We knew what words like vetting meant.

Sally Winters said, “Just think, Josie, if your parents made more money, it would’ve been Tyler they kidnapped.”

Josephine, the birthday girl, chuckled. “You know, you’re right,” she said. Then she sighed and said, “I could’ve made some real money.”

We looked at Tyler. He sat alone on one of the foldout chairs, quietly eating chips and salsa.

He was six now, probably too old by Jacob Carbunkle standards. But he was a very well-behaved boy. Very quiet.