My sister is supposed to pick me up, but she never does what she’s supposed to because she’s fourteen. She doesn’t care about anyone except her new boyfriend, who was three years older and wears gel in his hair like the Russians. He smells like cigarettes and Cheetos and squints when he looks at me. He doesn’t ever say anything, except to Brandy. When he talks to her, he puts his hand on her neck and moves his lips close to her ear.
“Kaitlyn,” Brandy told me the first time her boyfriend came over, “if you tell mom that Chaz was here, I swear to God I will break every bone in your right hand.”
She chose that one because I’m left-handed and she wouldn’t want to have to help me do things like writing and eating. But that would make it so I couldn’t play the piano anymore. Brandy hates that I’m so good at the piano. When Uncle Mike left for the Army, he got Mrs. Duncan to start giving me lessons. He didn’t get anything at all for her.
It’s sad to say this is well-trod ground; if I were to call it a “my first molestation” story, it might be seen as callous, but that classification carries with it the recognition that, first, the event is common enough to have an entire genre spring up around it, and, second, a “first” molestation is usually followed by more.
We see the world through the eyes of a child narrator; Patterson does a good job of capturing the blend of misconception, exaggeration, and assumption that is the child mind. Most of what we need to know about Kaitlin is in that paragraph above. These are kids left to their own devices, not due to any parental frivolity but simply the realities of life. Mom’s working, trying to keep a roof over their heads (she’s absent from the entire story; we find out she’s not exactly sure how old Kaitlin is, exactly, seven, eight, something like that). Uncle Mike (who may or may not be a genuine uncle; I’m not sure if kids still call Mom’s boyfriend “Uncle” like they used to) is at the mercy of US Defense policy and may also have limited options for keeping himself solvent, though it’s also possible he’s got other, darker reasons for absenting himself from the scene; Brandy isn’t saying.
Awareness of The Kidnapper permeates Kaitlin’s inner life, but she only has a seven-year-old’s comprehension of the news reports and sensationalized speculation (I’m looking at you, Nancy Grace) swirling around the girl who disappeared a few days ago. Every car she sees might contain the kidnapper. But the mailman’s a stranger, too. “There are other people besides kidnappers have to watch out for.” She has no idea how true this is until the end of the story.
To me, this was a story about blame; in fact, I struggled to work the phrase “birth of a blame magnet” into these comments (there it is!). I suspect a lot of readers will want to blame the mother for not keeping a better eye on her kids, but what are her options? This is our milieu: for those not blessed with certain abilities and/or a degree of luck, it’s a world that tramples you under then blames you for being in the way.
A house key (an eerie pun on piano keys?) becomes the central prop in a drama of blame: why isn’t the key where it’s supposed to be? Who forgot to put it back after it was last used? Why doesn’t Kaitlin have her own key? It’s so easy to scapegoat the person who’s developed the fewest defenses, and, at seven, Kaitlin hasn’t had time to build up those defenses. By the time she hits eight, she will. In the meantime, she dreams of having Stockholm Syndrome, which gives you some idea of what her reality is like.
But if the kidnapper catches me, I won’t have a choice. Help only in the back of his car, and will drive a long way to his house on top of the waterfall, somewhere in Italy or maybe Japan. He’ll have gel in his hair, and he’ll smoke cigarettes and tell me how I will never get away, not ever. He’ll tell me that he chose me out of everyone because he knows I am the most talented piano player in the world and he wants someone to play music for him for the rest of his life.
But when I play, he’ll become sad. He’ll howl and beat his head with his fists and cry. It’s too beautiful! he’ll weep. You’re too wonderful to keep alone in a house on top of the waterfall! And then he’ll know that he has to set me free.
But maybe I won’t go back home when he lets me go.