Mr. Depleted (Part Two)

You can read part one here.

“Are you crying?

“I’m sorry,” I inexplicably tell my captor, who I won’t dare glance at because I don’t want to move my head because there is a fucking gun pressed to it, but who is, judging from the voice, a woman. A young woman. “I’m . . . going through . . . some stuff.” Yes, I’m sobbing as I speak—stuttering, actually, taking big gasps of air between words. I’m a disaster. And meanwhile, there is a gun being held to my head, and a stranger in the passenger seat who is staring at me and telling me to drive, and—

Oh right. I need to drive.

I fumble with my keys, continuing to sob. I can feel her eyes on me. She’s getting restless. I’m getting closer and closer to passing out.

I put the keys in; I start the car.

“Finally,” she says, with obvious annoyance. “Go down the street and make a right.”

I nod. Then, by some sweet miracle, she—perhaps taking pity on me—takes the gun off my temple and sets it down in her lap. From the corner of my eye, I see her hand resting on it. Now maybe, if I was someone brave and level-headed, I could make a move for it. Maybe I could wrestle it from her and then drive straight to the police. But am I going to do that? Fuck no. That is a gun. I’m not taking any chances.

So I do as told while desperately attempting to stop my waterworks. Because I know she’s judging me for it. Is it weird that I actually care what my captor thinks of me?

“Jesus,” she says, as if reading my mind. “Are you always this emotional?”

“It’s been a really hard day, okay?” I wipe my eyes with the back of my sleeve. It’s a struggle to see the road, my vision is so foggy with tears. “Hey, there’s a box of Kleenex by your feet. Would you mind—?”

“And what, give you the opportunity to try something? No chance, Fonzie.”

It takes me a while to figure out why she’s calling me that. Then I realize, Oh. It’s the leather jacket. And then I’m embarrassed about that, as well. I mean, it’s one thing to be hysterically crying, but hysterically crying while wearing a leather jacket . . . I don’t know, it feels extra stupid. Sacrilegious, even.

“So here’s the deal,” she starts, and she begins going through my glove compartment (with her free, non-gun-holding hand) as she speaks, because why the fuck not. “I need to get out of the state. Don’t wonder why. And definitely don’t ask. Point is, I need out, and I need transportation. And you”—she lifts the gun here and points it at me for one brief, fleeting second of terror; I jump reactively—”are going to drive me. Got it?”

I’m still crying. Like a toddler, only roughly sixteen times more pathetic.

She’s staring at me again. Drumming her fingers on the gun. With her other hand, she finds a pack of gum in my glove compartment, and—without ever taking her eyes off me—pops it into her mouth. I’m not looking at her, of course (I still haven’t yet), but I can vaguely see from the corner of my eye. For some reason, this makes me cry harder.

“Okay, I’m going to take that as a yes,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like you have a lot of choices here.”

I need to get ahold of myself. I make a concerted effort to start thinking about light, happy things—puppy dogs and rainbows, fields of kittens. The lyrics to “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music flash through my head. To distract myself and quell my sobs, I start humming it as softly as possible. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Pathetic pathetic pathetic. But hey, you would do the same in that situation. Or maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know.) I guess I’m not quiet enough though, because she snaps her head in my direction and asks (in a voice that’s amused and disgusted in equal measure), “Are you actually humming what I think you’re humming?”

“No,” I say quickly (too quickly). I try to breathe in an almost lamaze-like way. Between that, the happy thoughts, and my brief humming stint, I’m sobbing less. The tears are starting to slow. So that’s good, right?

She’s still staring, though. That’s less good.

“Of all the cars and all the drivers in all the world . . . I get stuck with you.” She groans. “What luck.”

I work up the nerve to glance at her then, really look at her for the first time. And holy shit, she’s—

“You’re a kid.” The disbelief in my voice comes through loud and clear. Disbelief, and quiet horror. I’m being held hostage by a child.

“No I’m not,” she says with a scowl. “I’m fifteen.”

“No wonder you need me, you’re not even old enough to drive! Oh God . . .” I run a hand through my hair, the other white-knuckling the wheel. I want to start crying again but I resist the urge. Get it together, Jerome. Stop being pathetic.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens . . .

“Fifteen isn’t that young. And you should keep your eyes on the road from now on, no cute little peeks,” she says, her tone sharp, a warning.

From the peek I did take, I know that she has a nose ring and a scruffy black pixie cut with green streaks. She’s wearing heavy eyeliner and lots of makeup, but, despite all this, she looks young. She could probably pass for twelve or thirteen, even. God, what if she’s lying to me and she’s actually a tall, pierced eleven-year-old? Holy shit.

Holy shit.

“I saw your license plate,” she says. “I know you’re from out of state. That’s why I chose you. That, and the fact that you left your car unlocked.”

“No I didn’t, I—” Then I realize: When I went to set up the rose petals, barely able to hold all the goodies (read: worthless junk that meant nothing to Mia) in my arms, I had left it unlocked for ten, fifteen minutes, maybe. I didn’t think anything of it, not in a cushy little town like this, where the crime rate’s probably in the negatives. But now . . .


“You came back out and locked it, sure,” she says, “only by then, I was already in the passenger seat. You didn’t even notice.”

“I was distracted.” That lump in my throat returns. Resist the urge. Resist! “It’s been . . . a hectic day.”

“Mmmhmm,” she said, in a kind of doubtful voice that really grated on me. Like I was making it up.

So I say, for God knows what reason, “I was trying to win my girlfriend back.”

She laughs. I probably should’ve seen that coming, but of course, being me, I was expecting a little sympathy. Instead, she says, “Good luck with that.”

“Little late. It’s already gone terribly. I think I really blew it.” I want to bang my head against the steering wheel. I want to smash the car into the side of a building. Mostly, I want to kick out the strange fifteen-year-old sitting next to me.

Once again, she’s staring. “What did you do?”

“I can’t say,” I tell her, and I wince. “It’s too awful.”

“Did you cry in front of her, too?”

No. I cried because of her, though.” And then I burst into tears. Again. “She was just so mean to me . . .”

“Get ahold of yourself.”

“I’m trying!” I bite down on my lip, hard, and shake my head from side to side like a golden retriever trying to dry itself. I’m not sure why I think that’ll be effective, but I feel compelled to try it nevertheless.

And she’s just staring. With her creepy magenta eyes (color contacts, I’m assuming). “You’re kind of a loser,” she observes.

“Shut up,” I say, like a petulant teenager. “You don’t even know me . . .”

“True, but you’re painting a frightening picture right now. If this is the snapshot, I don’t want to see the album. No chance in hell.”

“Gee, thanks.” I sniffle, wiping my face with my sleeve. On the bright side, at least I’m not afraid of her anymore. I mean, sure, she’s got a gun, but she’s also not eligible to vote, drink, or drive. It’s kind of hard to be intimidated by a kid, albeit a pierced, fierce-looking one.

“You’re welcome.” She takes another piece of my gum, then holds it out to me. “Want one?”

“Do I want a piece of gum from my pack? Sure, why not.”

“Never mind. Your attitude has made you lose that privilege.” She rolls down the window and throws out the rest of the pack. I watch in horror.

“Hey! That’s littering!” Because this seems like an ideal time to worry about the environment.

“Hey! I don’t care!” she retorts. Then she grins, self-satisfied, and leans back in her seat. “You know, I can see why The Girlfriend didn’t like you.”

“That’s hurtful.”

“That’s hurtful,” she mocks, in a high-pitched, whiny imitation of my voice (which totally doesn’t sound like me at all). “Lighten up already.”

“It’s kind of hard to do that when I have a stranger in my car, pointing a gun at me.”

“Oh, come on. I’m not even pointing it at you. Though, if you’d like me to . . .”


She shrugs. “Fine, have it your way. Spoilsport.”

There’s a pause, a brief silence that lasts maybe twenty seconds. Then I go and ruin it like always by opening my big mouth and asking a stupid question: “So why do you need to leave the state?”

The gun immediately returns to my temple. I feel it there, and I make this little sound—half whimper, half gasp—and I’m too terrified to even feel embarrassed. Who knew young girls with streaks in their hair could be so scary?

“I already told you not to ask that,” she says. And she presses it in deeper, till I feel like it’ll leave behind a barrel-shaped mark in my skin.

I start blubbering out apologies and excuses and pleas: “No, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I won’t ask again! I was trying to make conversation! I’ve always been bad at that, I’m very awkward, these things don’t come naturally . . . I won’t ask again! You don’t have to tell me! Truth be told, I don’t even really care, I mean, that’s your business and—”

“All right, quiet down.” She puts the gun back in her lap. And then she fucking laughs. “You’re one hell of a baby.”

“You were going to shoot me!”

She waves me off. “Your fault, anyway. I mean, you ask a stupid question . . .”

She trails off; there’s another pause. I’m determined not to blow this one, so I go completely still and silent.

She gives me some directions, though I don’t really need her to—she’s having me go the same way I came, back when I first arrived in this shitty town with high, stupid hopes . . . it was just a few hours ago that I pulled up to the hotel, but it may as well have been a whole other century.

I start to cry again—gentle crying, though, which I have to believe is a slight improvement over ugly, uncontrollable sobs—and she observes me like someone might observe a warthog at a zoo.

“So tell me about The Girlfriend.”

“What?” I ask, my voice shaky from the whole, you know, crying thing.

“The Girlfriend. Or would you prefer Sexy Ex-y?”

“No—The Girlfriend’s fine.” Sniffling, I nod toward the glove compartment. “There’s a picture in there. Of her. I look at it sometimes when I’m depressed. Seeing her face always . . . always . . .” I break off here and resume my crying (back to the ugly, uncontrollable sobs now).

“Oh, shut up already,” she says. Then she digs through the glove compartment again and comes back out with the tiny little photo—it’s Mia and me, smiling, blissful. We were so happy then. So perfect.

I can’t even look at it—and not just because I’m driving. Mostly because seeing her makes me feel even lower, and more pathetic, and more prone to hysterical sobbing than I already am. Which is a strange development, considering how Mia’s picture usually makes me feel the opposite.

“Damn,” the fifteen-year-old says. “She’s hot. Bummer you’re still hung up on her or I’d ask for a fix-up. I’d totally buy her dinner, and I’m broke as shit.”

“You’re also a teenager,” I say, getting control of my tears long enough to risk snatching the picture from her hands and tucking it into my pocket. “And, you know—holding me hostage. At gunpoint.”

“Stop martyring yourself,” she says, with a dramatic eye roll.

“Martyring myself? You are actually holding me hostage at gunpoint. I think I’ve earned the right to be a victim.”

She just shrugs. Somehow that’s all the more infuriating.

“So, getting back to my question . . .” She smirks. “Tell me about her.”


“Ah, and we have a name! Mia.” She squints, then shakes her head. “Doesn’t fit her. Sounds too much like an Italian restaurant.”

“She’s so, so beautiful.”

“I saw.”

“No, but, like, even more beautiful than that.”

“And way out of your league.”

I frown. “That’s subjective.”

“That’s subjective,” she repeats, in another high-pitched imitation of me.

“Anyway, she’s incredibly beautiful. See how she’s kind of, you know, ethnically ambiguous? So pretty. She’s biracial.” I sigh. “We would’ve had such cute kids . . .”

“Okay, stop.” She holds up a hand. “Stop right there. That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“What? How is complimenting her a horrible thing to say?”

“You’re not ‘complimenting’ her, you’re fetishizing and exoticizing her.”

“No I’m not,” I scoff.

“Yes you are. Like how your fellow white male brethren act toward Asian girls.”

“Mia’s not Asian,” I respond (dumbly).

“Not the point I’m making. What I’m saying is that comments like ‘look at how beautiful her brown, biracial skin is’ and ‘our multicultural children would be so pretty’ are gross things to say, and problematic as hell.”

“Well, that wasn’t exactly what I said—“

“Close enough though, isn’t it? I mean, that’s obviously what you meant.”

I want to argue the point, but I can’t really, because, tragically, she’s right. How did I not realize that till just now? No wonder Mia acted so coldly toward me. Clearly I’ve been kind of a jerk.

Although maybe, if I prove to her I’ve changed, that I’ve seen the error of my ways—

“What’s your name?”


“Your name,” the fifteen-year-old says slowly, like she’s speaking to someone who lost half their brain in a tractor accident. (Too specific of an analogy? Maybe.)

“Uh, it’s . . . wait. Why would I tell you that? You’re my captor!”

“Exactly. There’s not really a lot of choice here.” She raises the gun at me with a maniacal grin. Shit, I think. This girl really is actually fucking crazy.

“I’m Jerome,” I say, through gritted teeth. “Now please tell me your name—your full name. I want to be as detailed as possible when the police take my story.”

Maybe that’s not the smartest thing to say to someone with a gun, but I’m feeling oddly brave, and, just as strangely, like I’m beginning to get comfortable with the girl. And less certain that this is the last car ride I’ll ever take.

“Well, as tempting as that is, I don’t want you using my name.” She pauses. Then, as if reading my thoughts, adds, “Just so we’re clear, we’re not friends. I need you to get me out of here, and that’s it. So if you try anything, rest assured you’ll be eating a bullet faster than you can say ‘I’m so sorry Mia.’ Okay?”

Jesus Christ. Suddenly I’m terrified again. “I—I won’t—” I clear my throat. Then I decide to play it cool, like I’m not even scared shitless at all. “I won’t do anything.”

“Okay. Glad that’s settled.” She pauses, then turns to me with an evil look on her face. “Let’s get back to Mia.”

I sigh, but truth be told I don’t mind talking about her, even with the rawness of everything that happened. It’s comforting, I guess—like Mia’s the one thing that makes sense right now, familiar and safe, giving me hope even as I’m being held at gunpoint by a crazy person. And that’s nice.

“Well, she was a lot of fun, and really nice—and God, so gorgeous. Unbelievably, blindingly gorgeous.”

“Anything else?”

“What do you care? We’re ‘not friends,’ remember?”

“Just curious.” She shakes her head. “Hate to break it to you, Jerome, but it sounds like the only thing about Mia you’re in love with is her looks.”

“What? That’s so not true!”

“Then how come, each time I’ve asked you to tell me about her, you keep coming back to how pretty she is?”

I stumble on my answer and she smirks in this really smug, self-satisfied way. “That doesn’t prove anything,” I choke out at last.

“It proves everything.

“No, it doesn’t. What Mia and I had was . . . you know what? You wouldn’t understand.”

“Okay, prove to me your undying love. What’s her favorite book?”

I search my brain for the answer. It’s in there somewhere, I know it is—I mean, she must’ve told me her favorite book at some point, right? Mia was well-read. Mia loved books. And her favorite was . . . uh . . .


“Favorite movie?” the girl prompts, noticing my hesitation.

“Oh, that’s easy. It was that one with the, uh, the guy and the girl and the snowstorm—or was it a beach? What’s that one called?”

The Shitty Boyfriend?”

“Har har,” I say dryly. “Very funny. But I know it, I do—I just can’t think of the name right now, because it’s a lot of pressure, and for fuck’s sake, you’re holding me hostage!”

“Sure, Jerome. Sure.” She’s still smirking. I hate that fucking smirk. “No wonder Mia dumped you: you know nothing about her.”

“I know everything about her! I know her birthday, I know where she keeps her spare key, I know what activities she likes . . .”

“So you know a few things—great. But that doesn’t change the fact that to you, the most appealing part about Mia is her looks and the fact that she’s ‘exotic.’”

I want to respond, but the words dry up. I guess because, deep down, a part of me is worried she’s right. What do I like about Mia? Well, she’s a lot of fun . . . and nice . . . oh, and I like how she’d always, uh, you know—take risks and go on adventures and things. That’s enough, isn’t it?

“I like who I was when I was with her,” I say, because I mean it and because it’s better than just liking her for her looks (which I don’t—I mean, I like her looks and everything, but that’s not all).

“But again, Jerome, liking who you were when you were with doesn’t equal liking her.” She chuckles and the noise seems to go on for a solid five minutes as I sit beside her, suddenly confused and embarrassed and ashamed and . . .

God. Who is this girl? “Who are you? Dr. Phil?”

In an instant, the gun’s back at my temple. I shudder and start to cry. She says, in an icy voice, “Don’t ask me who I am and we’ll get along fine. Ask me again and you’re dead. Okay?”

Somehow, through my tears, I manage a meek and feeble, “Okay.” Then the gun is put back on her lap and she swings her legs back and forth like a contented kindergartener.

“Oh yeah,” she muses, staring out her window. “This is gonna be a fun drive.”

The mood in the car shifts back to a tense air sometime later, when it becomes apparent the car’s running out of gas. I can practically feel the gears moving in her head, and, for the first time, I realize she—in her own way—is as scared as I am.

“We’ll have to stop,” I tell her.

“I know how cars work,” she snaps. Then, sighing, she nods. “First gas station you see. Don’t try anything.”

That’s become my inner mantra—don’t try anything. Don’t say the wrong thing. Don’t get on her bad side. Seeing as how I’m still alive, I’d say it’s been working pretty well.

When we come across the gas station, I pull over and get out. Before I do, she gives me another warning, aiming the gun at my face as discreetly as possible and hissing, “One wrong move.”

I feel a chill.

I stand there, in the crisp night air, and fill up the tank. As the seconds tick by, I know I’m running out of time—if I want to escape, I’ll have to do it now. But she hasn’t taken her eyes off me since I left the car. I doubt I’d make it more than a few steps before she shoots me.

Then, for the first time all day, I catch a break. Another car pulls into the station. It’s a woman with sandy hair, and she is my savior. As she pulls across from me and gets out to fill up her tank, the gun-toting girl’s eyes finally leave me and start watching the woman. I see my opportunity, and I take it.

I run into the gas station convenience store as fast as I’ve ever run in my life.

I make it.

I’m nearly in hysterics when I arrive inside; the attendant looks up at me, perplexed, and I think he asks if I need some help but I can’t really hear him over my pounding heart.

“I’m being held hostage,” I tell him. Saying those words to this stranger makes the whole situation suddenly seem realer, and surrealer. (Not a word, but let’s go with it.) I make my way through the aisles of snack food and to the counter, where I slam down my fists and lean toward him desperately. “Please, you’ve gotta help me. My phone’s in the car with my captor, I can’t call anyone. You need to dial 911 for me—please!”

“Okay, okay,” the man says, and now he looks almost as frightened as me.

Then the door opens. Someone else comes in.

I know who it is before I turn around. And, sure enough, it’s her. The gun-toting brat to end all brats, standing before us. Only she doesn’t have her gun.

Why doesn’t she have her gun?

“Jerome?” she calls sweetly. She’s smiling at me, but her brow is furrowed. Like she’s confused.

“That’s her!” I say, pointing. I turn back to the man—he has the phone in his hand but has stopped dialing, looking from me to the girl and back again. His brow is also furrowed. “That’s my captor,” I elaborate. For good measure and extra clarity, I add, “You know, the one who’s holding me hostage.”

“Jerome! My goodness!” The girl comes over to us and I flinch, but she just smiles. And smiles, and smiles, like I’m such a delightful little kook. Turning to the attendant, she chirps, “This is my older brother, Jerome. He has an, uh, colorful imagination.” Leaning closer, she drops her voice to a whisper as she tells him, “He suffers from delusions and paranoia. He thinks our dad is a super-spy and our mother’s a serial killer. I guess now I’m his captor.”

The man nods, as though this all suddenly makes sense, and I just stand there, gaping. “That’s not true!” I insist. “I’m being held hostage by this girl! She’s making me drive her out of state! I’ve never met her before in my life!”

“Jerome, please! Calm down.” She shakes her head. “How could I be holding you hostage? I’m fifteen. I’m your little sister!”

“Maybe I should call someone—“ the attendant starts.

The girl interrupts. “I’d really prefer you didn’t. We need to get going—we’re on our way to our aunt’s house—and the last thing I need to deal with is explaining to the police about Jerome’s extensive mental health issues.”

“I’m not crazy!” I squeak, even though it’s useless.

She plows on as if she didn’t hear me. “I understand he must’ve caused you quite a fright, and if it puts your mind at ease, you’re welcome to go out and take a look at our car.” She points at the empty, now-abandoned vehicle sitting by its lonesome, looking harmless as a fruit fly. “You won’t find any scary, gun-wielding captors in there, I assure you.” And then they share a laugh.

They share a laugh.

“Well, that doesn’t seem necessary,” the attendant says. He puts down the phone. He puts down the phone. I see my chances of escape or rescue disappear in an instant, and all the hope seeps out of me. I’m dead now. This girl is going to kill me.

“So sorry about the misunderstanding,” the girl says. She starts tugging on my sleeve. I resist at first before following along helplessly—what’s the point anymore? I’m a dead man.

“It’s fine. Just glad to know he’s in good hands,” the attendant says. “Have a nice night, you two.”

We leave. We go to the car. She says not a word.

The silence may be even worse.

When we get in, then, and only then, does she turn to me. What she says is simple and spoken plainly: “Drive.”

And I do.

“Are we going to talk about what happened back there?” she asks me. We left the gas station about twenty minutes ago, and since then, the car’s been steeped in sheer silence. It’s kind of nice to hear her voice again, in a weird way.

“Nothing to talk about.”

“Oh, I think there is. Like that little thing called ‘your immense, horrible betrayal’? And to think—I almost believed I could trust you. Well, I won’t make that mistake again.” She jabs the gun into my temple. “I should fire this puppy right now. Payback’s a bitch, but it’s well-deserved.”

“Then do it. I know you’re going to anyway, sooner or later.”

“Maybe I will.” She holds the gun to my head for a few seconds longer before easing it off and dropping it back into her lap. “Killing you would be a waste of a perfectly good bullet,” she explains. But I have to doubt that’s the real reason.

It’s silent again for a while after that. Then, out of the blue, she asks me, “Are you going to apologize?”

If the situation was different, I might’ve laughed. “What? No, of course I’m not going to apologize. I had to make a break for it—you’re holding me hostage! With a gun!”

She sighs. “That line’s getting really old.”

“Why haven’t you killed me yet?” I ask. I can’t say why I ask this, or where I get the chutzpah, but I ask all the same.

She hesitates. I can sense the gears turning in her head again. “I don’t know,” she says finally, and I actually deflate a bit at her anticlimactic response.

“Well, maybe you’re actually a nice kid, deep down,” I theorize.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see her scowl. “Here’s an idea: Why don’t you keep your musings to a minimum and focus on driving, okay?”


“You know, it’s funny,” she says a little while later—out of the clear blue sky, once again.

“What is?” I ask. A part of me is afraid of the answer.

“You.” She chuckles to herself. “You’re such a stereotype.”


“This,” she says, gesturing at me. “All of this. You know, how you are. How you speak, how you dress, how you conduct yourself . . . I’ve only been around you for a short time, but I get the sense that this isn’t an act—it’s just you. And that’s funny to me.”

“I . . . don’t understand.”

“Oh, come on. Do I have to spell it out for you? The Allen-esque, nebbish, nerdy, awkward, unsure-of-himself Jewish guy. And I bet you’re from New York, too, right?”

“I, uh—well, yeah, but—”

“Knew it! See, it’s interesting. Here we are, the stereotype and the very non-stereotypical girl that is me.”

“I’m not a stereotype,” I mumble.

“Yes you are. And, while it’s entertaining to me, it’s also a bit sad you feel you have to act like a character, a caricature, in order to get people to like you.” She gives me a condescending, pitying frown and pat on the shoulder. “There, there, Jerome. You can be yourself around me. I mean, after all, I won’t like you regardless, so you may as well stop trying so hard.”

“I’m not trying anything! This is just how I am!” My voice has raised to an almost comical near-shout. I’m actually upset right now. I’ve gone from scared shitless to pissed off in the course of one car ride. “Maybe the way I act is weird to you, but this is normal to me.”

“You must’ve watched a lot of movies to be mimicking this trope so precisely,” she says. “It would almost be impressive if it weren’t so sad.”

“I’m not like this because of movies, or TV shows, or whatever else. I’m awkward and nebbish and unsure of myself because . . . well, because . . .” Oh, here it comes. The thing I don’t talk about. The thing I know better than to talk about. The thing I shouldn’t be telling anyone, particularly a snarky kid who’s holding me hostage. I try to stop myself, but I can’t—the words start to come, and when they do, the rest just spills out in a flash. Like they’ve been desperate to escape for some time now. “I’m like this because when I was a kid, I got sick. Really, really sick, and I stayed that way for a long time. I had to be homeschooled. I couldn’t be around other kids my age . . . hell, I couldn’t even leave my room. And I kind of forgot how to interact with other humans outside my family. So, by the time I got better and made it back into the land of the living, my social skills were shot. Maybe, to some extent, they still are. So yeah, I’m awkward, and I’m nebbish, and I’m never sure of myself. Yeah, I’m a scaredy cat. Yeah, I’m weird. But you would be too if you went through what I went through.”

There’s a pause. I can’t quite believe I said that. Even Mia didn’t know about that—virtually no one does. Yet this stranger, this hostage-taker, does. Why, why, why?

Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to let it all hang out, to talk about it for the first time in ages.

After that long, pregnant pause passes, the girl speaks. “Jeez,” she says, edging away from me. “Sorry I asked.”

“Sorry I told.”

“That’s some fucked-up shit, dude. Maybe try therapy or a support group or something.”

“Thanks,” I say dryly. “I’ll look into it.” (And this is why I don’t tell anyone.)

“I’ll give you credit, though: it’s a decent excuse for why you act like such a dork.”

“Thanks,” I say again, with equal sarcasm and disdain.

Then it’s quiet again. On we drive.

She rolls down her window as she says, “I pity you, Jerome. I really do.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“Yes, you do. Let’s see—you’re hung up on a girl you have no future with, who you think you’re in love with but who you’re really not—”

“Yes, I am.”

“You’re not. I promise you, you’re not. And then there’s that whole little revelation about your weird-ass childhood illness that’s led to this stereotypical vibe of yours, and you’re stuck in a car with me. I realize you’re not exactly having the time of your life right now.”

“You can bet your ass I’m not.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, neither am I. But, in the spirit of generosity, I’m going to help you. Not because I like you—I don’t—and definitely not because we’re friends—we’re not—but because, put simply, I kind of owe you one. Yes, what you did at the gas station was a horrible betrayal—”

“It wasn’t.”

“—but I’m someone who likes to let bygones be bygones. And you’ve been a pretty good driver besides that incident. So, all of that said, here’s what I’m going to do for you.” Instead of telling me, she reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out the picture of Mia once more. Then she—

Oh my God.

She throws the picture out the window.

She throws the picture out the window!

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my— “God! Why would you do that?” I pull the car to the side of the road and get out as soon as I’m able, desperate to find the photo.

“I’m helping you, Jerome. You need to let go of her.”

“Fuck that! Fuck this, fuck all of this!” I slam my door as I go stumbling out into the dark, down the side of the highway, clamoring for the picture. I wade my way around, searching through broken-off tree limbs and leaves and debris for any sign of it.

I start to cry again. I shouldn’t, but I do. It’s strange, but I didn’t even realize how much that picture meant to me until she tossed it away. It’s sort of like that picture was Mia for me—it was as though she threw Mia right out the window. And I have to find her, I have to.

But, as seconds lead to minutes and those minutes come and go, I soon began to realize—though not accept—the hopelessness of my situation. I’m not going to find the photo. And the girl, who has remained in the car the entire time I’ve been searching, probably knows that.

Fifteen minutes later, she finally emerges. I’m sitting on the filthy ground, my head in my hands, and don’t see her approach—but I hear her footsteps, feel her standing beside me. “You need to let her go,” she repeats. I flinch at the words.

“I loved that picture,” I say.

“Did you, though?”

I sigh into my hands. It’s cold out; there’s a breeze. I feel her hand on my shoulder. Just sitting there, hanging out, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

“Time to move on,” she tells me. Then, perhaps just to remind me not to get too comfortable, she adds, “I still have a gun.”

I nod wearily and drag myself up off the ground. We walk back to the car, and I leave Mia behind us, abandoned somewhere on the roadside.

Ten minutes after crossing into the neighboring state, the girl tells me to pull off to a nice, tree-lined street. I park there and wait for further instructions. She’s quiet, contemplative. Her eyes are fixed on some vague spot in the distance. She won’t look at me. She won’t speak. I don’t ask, either, afraid she’ll get mad if I do. I just let her sit with her thoughts. It’s almost peaceful.

“I don’t know why I did it,” she says. Her voice is wispy, dreamlike. “’Take you hostage’ or whatever. Well, that’s not really true. I know why I did it—I had to get out of there. Out of that house, away from those people . . . my family, supposedly. Like they even knew what that word meant . . .” She shakes her head. “Anyway, that’s my reason. Pretty clichéd, huh? And here I am, calling you the stereotype.” She laughs, but it’s a different kind of laugh this time—it sounds sad.

“What are you going to do here?” I ask.

“Honestly? I don’t know. But, the way I see it, anything’s better than being trapped in that place.”

I’m suddenly seized with sympathy for this girl as I remember that she’s a kid—just a kid. A scared, desperate kid, with what sounds like a shittier childhood than mine. She’s no longer my captor, the gun-toting supervillain sent by Satan to terrorize me and take me hostage. She’s just a kid.

“Let me help you,” I say, the words soft and crumbly. (My voice is still a bit shaky from all that crying.)

She just shakes her head. “You’ve done enough.”

“You’re a kid—“

“I’m not a kid, Jerome. Not really. I’ll figure something out. Or,” she adds with a smirk, “I’ll die trying.”

It’s quiet again. I want to argue with her, insist that she let me help her, but I can’t find the words.

She lifts the gun off her lap and points it at my chest suddenly. “Get out,” she says. I’m not afraid, though. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.

I get out of the car and she does the same. Then she instructs me to walk down a nearby alleyway, with her following just behind. I start to get a bit scared at this point—I mean, come on; it’s a dark alleyway, and I’m with someone who’s desperate and carrying a gun—but not so frightened, because I still believe, quite stubbornly, that she won’t shoot. That her bark’s worse than her bite. That she is, at her core, a scared kid and not a shitty person.

She tells me to stop walking and I do. I hear her behind me. “So this is it,” she says. “Sorry I made you drive me here. I mean, I’m not really sorry—I’m glad to be here—but I’m sorry for you. And one last thing . . . I know you won’t listen to me—why should you?—but don’t go back for her, Jerome. Just . . . don’t.”

I nod.

There’s a clang sound behind me. It’s loud and makes me jump, but I don’t look back. Next, I hear her footsteps as they retreat, heading back out the alleyway. I wait and I wait. A few minutes after the footsteps have faded, I finally turn around.

I’m alone. A few steps away from me, she’s left her gun behind. I approach it, scoop it up, hold it in my hands. I can’t see it too well in the dark of the alley, so I walk back out to the streets and inspect it beneath the street lamps.

It’s then that I realize it’s a fake gun.

A real-looking, but nevertheless fake, gun.

I don’t know how I was fooled by it. I guess blind, delirious panic and fear will make a person buy any load of bullshit served to them. And maybe I should be angry at that girl, but I’m just so happy to be alive that I can’t muster up any outrage. Instead, I start to laugh. It feels like the first time I’ve laughed in years. I laugh and I laugh, standing there on the street with a toy gun in my hands, my car parked a short ways away. I can’t help myself—because, in a perverse kind of way, as terrible as this day has been, it’s also almost funny.