The story took only ten minutes to tell. It wasn’t a very long story, but I thought about it all day after that, and once again twenty years later, when Gabrielle lived someplace else. She told me it was a dream, but in my dreams it was real.
The story began when her eyes burned blue. She had woken on the crushed velvet cover of a van’s back seat, and from the inside you couldn’t immediately tell you were in a van, moving. By her side were two others, one she didn’t recognize, the other, her blonde friend Kayla. The three of them lay crushed upon the seat like velvet.
In the front seat, a woman with big hair and turquoise earrings that draped over her shoulders drove furiously, fingers white-knuckled on the wheel. The sound of horns, smeared by speed, penetrated the van walls. No one dared ask where they were rushing to. They were clearly kidnapped.
The horns stopped, the van stopped. The white-knuckled fingers released the wheel and threw open the front door. Heels on stairs, a doorbell, an extra ring, and the scrape of a rusty knob. Hushed voices whispered a hurried exchange and Gabrielle couldn’t make out much, though her ear was pressed to the cold metal van wall. Two words: “new ones.” Was that it? Kayla did not wake, if it was Kayla; her face was down on the seat and only her hair stuck up at odd angles, crushed by the corrosive caress of sleep. Next to her was another body—a boy from school? She didn’t know. He would not appear again in the story.
The big haired lady led them inside. Their kidnapper. A red powder room with red chairs and red walls and silver mirrors. Nothing was explained; they got dolled up. They did nothing; others dolled them. Dressed them, painted them, combed and blew out their hair in styles they’d never seen, though Kayla’s refused to be tamed without wax. Wax? Gabrielle didn’t know why wax. It was like she’d slept for a hundred years.
They were led out of the other side of the house, the backdoor, it seemed; but then. There on the other side, there was a red carpet in a secret tunnel, a tunnel filled with superstars. Superstars: the ones whose names most people have heard or whose faces most people have seen but whose lives no one knows much about. Each of the prisoners were matched with a superstar, pinned to their arm like safety pins hold a paper number to a marathon runner. Assigned. They stepped out into a rainforest of camera flashes and strange noises and frightening grins, the red carpet underfoot.
It was four in the morning when Gabrielle’s eyes slipped open briefly to reveal the red numbers of the alarm clock. But outside, in the red carpet rainforest, someone suspected her. Suspected something she said. Are you sure about that? a man in a tuxedo asked, and he laughed but he meant it, Are you sure? She could tell. She was supposed to belong to the big haired lady’s family, the one with long earrings who was now wearing a rich turquoise dress and a tinkling laugh. Gabrielle supposed she did belong, in a way. But not that way. Pinned to this strange arm, this was the pretext for her appearance in the red carpet rainforest. The rainforest. It was a rainforest. Everyone believed it, believed everything, except this man in the tuxedo. Gabrielle was beginning to believe it herself.
How do we get out? she whispered to one of the dolled-up girls pinned to a celebrity arm.
It’s an organization, the girl said.
How do we get out?
They match you up with celebrities without dates, and you pretend to be dating.
How do we get out?
It’s for the cameras. For the public.
How do we get out?
At night some of the girls go out.
On the streets. For pay.
But how do we get out?
Why would you want to?
This right here is the life. The red carpet life, the celebrities, the real thing. The real thing.
How do we get out?
How do we get out!
No answer. The man in the tuxedo was still talking. A female celebrity walked by; pinned to her arm was Gabrielle’s boyfriend, Luke. Gabrielle called out to him. He smiled and walked over, the celebrity pinned to his arm. The tuxedo man watched Gabrielle closely, ran his gaze over the line between Gabrielle and Luke’s eyes, over the ridges of her mouth, and Luke’s, and the celebrity’s. You two are brother and sister? Luke’s eyebrows raised. I know what this is, the tuxedo man said, his voice dripping with the clarity of correctness, tell me what this is and I can help you out.
Out? thought Gabrielle. How do we get out?
In the dream they revealed themselves, Gabrielle and Luke, revealed everything, the kidnapping, the dolling, the pinning, the rainforest. The man’s nostrils flared, white at the tips, the corners of his mouth dove down his chin. He shook his head. He left. They were still there.
How do we get out? Gabrielle and Luke’s eyes glued together. They dissolved.
And that was it? Yes, that was it. A ten minute story, but one I thought about for the rest of that day, and the next. And twenty years later when Gabrielle was gone, and her boyfriend was gone, and my daughter was gone. Kidnapped, the man in the suit said. He flipped his notebook shut. The corners of his mouth dove down as he left me there, alone.
Every night before going to bed my daughter holds my face and whispers, Good night, and no robbers.
No robbers, I say.
No kidnappers, I say.
No bad guys.
I smile and kiss her on her forehead, my lips taught with an irrepressible smile. In the morning, she is gone.
Honey, I whisper into a red, carpeted rainforest of fear, How do we get out?