The First Piece of the Kidnapper’s Puzzle
The woman who had once been Hannah barely remembered that day in New Jersey.
It was so many years ago, and anyway, it had been an accident.
It happened because she was driving east. There was no reason to head east. But when she stole the car and wanted to get out of the area quickly, she took the first interstate ramp she saw. It was eastbound.
She had never stolen a car before. It was as much fun as drugs. The excitement was so great that she had not needed sleep or rest or even meals.
Everybody else driving on the turnpike had experience and knew what they were doing. But although the woman once known as Hannah was thirty, she had done very little driving.
Back when she was a teenager and everybody else was learning to drive, her cruel parents had never bought her a car. They rarely let her drive the family car either. They said she was immature. And in the group she joined, only the leaders had cars.
She found the group during her freshman year at college. She hated college. She hated being away from home and she hated her parents for making her go to college. Even more, she hated admitting defeat.
The group had embraced Hannah. Inside the group, she did not have to succeed or fail. There were no decisions and no worries. She did not have to choose that one of those frightening things called a career. Her parents—those people from her past—had always been on her case about her future. Always demanding that she consider her skills and abilities.
Hannah did not want to consider things.
She wanted other people to consider.
While she was still useful to the group, earning money and getting new converts, she kept the name they had given her. But time passed and the group disbanded. Its members ended up on the street. She found herself homeless and helpless, and she needed another name. For a while she called herself Tiffany. Then she tried Trixie.
In the years that followed, she made use of stolen paperwork. She was pretty good at lifting the wallets of careless college kids in coffee shops. They had too much anyway. They needed to share.
After many hours on that turnpike in that stolen car, Hannah was amazed by a sign reading welcome to new jersey. She had crossed the entire country. If the road kept going, it would bump into the Atlantic Ocean. She stopped for gas. Now the signs gave directions for the Jersey Shore.
During her childhood in Connecticut, her family used to go to the beach. She didn’t mind the sand, but her parents always wanted her to learn how to swim. Swimming was scary, and she refused to try, but her parents were the kind of people who forced you to do scary things. She still hated them for it. The group had told her not to worry about her mother and father. Parents were nothing; the group was her family.
No. She would not go to the beach today, because it reminded her of things better forgotten.
She got back on the interstate. It was difficult to merge with traffic. She crept along the shoulder for a while until there was finally a space. She couldn’t seem to drive fast enough. People kept honking at her.
It occurred to her that she had not eaten in a long time. A billboard advertised a mall. She took the exit.
The mall was disgusting, full of American excess. People were shopping too much, eating too much, talking too much.
Her parents had been like that. They loved things. They always bought her things. They spoiled her. It was their fault that she had struggled later on.
She decided she wanted ice cream. At the food court, she was shocked by how much they charged and had to take another turn around the mall to walk off her fury. How dare they ask that much! American society was so greedy.
She took the escalator to the second floor. She was an excellent shoplifter, but she could not think of a way to shoplift ice cream. She would have to pay for it. Like the gas! She had had to pay for the gas, too!
A toddler was standing just outside a shoe shop.
Hannah did not care for small children, who were sticky and whiny. But this one was cute enough, with ringlets of red-gold hair. Hannah reached down, taking hold of those warm little fingers. The toddler gave her a beautiful smile.
The grown-ups with this child were probably only a few feet away. But they were not watching at that split second, or they would have come over. Hannah had possession. It was a hot, surging feel. A taunt-on-the-playground feel. I have something you don’t have, sang Hannah.
She and the little girl walked to the escalator. Hannah’s pulse was so fast she could have leapt off the steps and flown to the food court. Stealing a car had been much more fun than stealing a credit card. But stealing a toddler! Hannah had never felt so excited.
“What about Mommy?” said the little girl.
“She’ll be here in a minute,” said Hannah. And if she does come, thought Hannah, I’ll say I’m rescuing the kid. I’m the savior.
Hannah giggled to herself. She was the opposite of a savior.
At the ice cream kiosk, Hannah lifted the toddler onto a stool.
“How adorable your little girl is!” cried the server. “Daddy’s a redhead, huh?”
The toddler beamed.
Hannah did not.
How typical of American society that even a stupid ice cream server cared more about pretty red hair on some kid than about the suffering soul of a woman in need. The server turned to a second worker behind the counter, a skinny young man whose apron was spotted with chocolate and marshmallow. They helped each other with orders and they seemed happy.
Hannah had had a life once where people helped each other and seemed happy. But that life was gone now. The leader had been arrested, and when the group melted away, Hannah stumbled around the country, following various members, hoping they would include her in their lives again.
But they wouldn’t. Grow up, they said to her. Get a life.
Hannah could not seem to get a life. It was her parents’ fault. She had known that when she was a teenager. She had known that when she was in her twenties. And now she was thirty, and what did she have to show for it?
A stupid ice cream server had more of a life than she did!
She hated the server.
“What about Mommy?” said the little girl again. She wasn’t frightened, just puzzled.
Hannah hated the cute little girl now, with her cute little outfit and her cute little barrette in her cute curly red hair. She hated the way the little girl sat so happily among strangers, assuming everybody was a friend and life was good.
You’re wrong, thought the woman once known as Hannah. Nobody is a friend and life is bad.
I’ll prove it to you.
Janie Johnson wrote her college application essay.
Please write an essay (750 words or fewer) that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event. Please attach your response to the end of your application.
My legal name is Jennie Spring, but I am applying under my other name, Janie Johnson. My high school records and SAT scores will arrive under the name Janie Johnson. Janie Johnson is not my real name, but it is my real life.
A few years ago, in our high school cafeteria, I glanced down at a half-pint milk carton. The photograph of a missing child was printed on the side. I recognized that photograph. I was the child. But that was impossible. I had wonderful parents, whom I loved.
I did not know what to do. If I told anybody that I suspected my parents were actually my kidnappers, my family would be destroyed by the courts and the media. But I loved my family. I could not hurt them. However, if I did not tell, what about that other family, apparently my birth family, still out there worrying?
What does a good person do when there is no good thing to do? It is a problem I have faced more than once.
I now have two sets of parents: my biological mother and father (Donna and Jonathan Spring) and my other mother and father (Miranda and Frank Johnson). The media refers to the Johnsons as “the kidnap parents.” But the Johnsons did not kidnap me, and they did not know there had been a kidnapping.
Usually when people find out about my situation, they go online for details. I have friends who have kept scrapbooks about my life. Among the many reasons I hope to be accepted at your college is that I ache to escape the aftermath of my own kidnapping. It happened fifteen years ago, so it ought to be ancient history. But it isn’t. People do not leave it or me alone. It is not that distant crime they keep alive. It is my agony as I try to be loyal. “Honor thy father and mother” is a Bible commandment I have tried to live by. But if I honor one mother and father, I dishonor the other.
If I am accepted at a college in New York City, I can easily visit both sets of parents—taking a train out of Penn Station to visit my Spring family in New Jersey or a train out of Grand Central to visit my Johnson family in Connecticut. I need my families, but I don’t want to live at home, because then I would have to choose one over the other.
New York City is full of strangers. I don’t want to be afraid of strangers anymore. I want to be surrounded by strangers and enjoy them. It is tempting to go to school in Massachusetts, because I have relatives and a boyfriend there. But I would lean on them, and I want to stand alone. I’ve never done that. It sounds scary. But it is time to try.
I know my grades are not high enough. My situation meant that I went back and forth between two high schools. At my high school in Connecticut, where I grew up and knew everybody, people were riveted by what was happening to me. They were kind, but they wanted to be part of it, as if I were a celebrity instead of somebody in a terrible position trying to find the way out. At my high school in New Jersey, my classmates had all grown up with my New Jersey brothers and sister, and they knew about the crime in a very different way, and sometimes acted as if I meant to damage my real family. As a result, I didn’t study hard enough. I promise that I will study hard enough at college.
I am asking you to accept me as a freshman, but I have something even more important to ask. Whether you accept me or not, will you please not talk about me with your faculty, your student body, or your city? Thank you.
She was accepted.
The Spring parents (the real ones) and the Johnson parents (the other ones) argued with Janie about her decision to attend college in Manhattan. “It’s too much for you,” they said. “You can’t deal with the pressure. You’ll drop out. You need to be with people who know your whole history.”
No, thought Janie Johnson. I need to be with people who do not know one single thing.
The New York City dormitory to which she had been assigned held six hundred kids. She would be nobody. It was a lovely thought. She did worry that she might introduce herself (“Hi. My name is Janie Johnson”) and they would say, “Oh, you’re the one who went and found your birth family and then refused to live with them. You’re the one the court had to order to go home again. You’re the one who abandoned your birth family a second time and went back and lived with your kidnap parents after all.”
Outsiders made it sound easy. As if she could have said to the only mother and father she had ever known, “Hey—it’s been fun. Whatever. I’m out of here,” and then trotted away. As if she could have become a person named Jennie Spring over a weekend.
One reason the kidnap story was so often in the news was that Janie was photogenic. She had masses of bright auburn curls, and a smile that made people love her when she hadn’t said a word.
For college, she wanted to look different.
Her sister, Jodie (the one Janie hadn’t met until they were both teenagers), had identical hair, but Jodie trimmed hers into tight low curls. Janie had enough problems with this sister; imitating her hairstyle did not seem wise. So for college, Janie yanked her hair back, catching it in a thick round bun because it was too curly to fall into a ponytail.
Back when she’d first arrived at her birth family’s house, Janie had shared a bedroom with the new sister, Jodie, and a bathroom with all the rest of the Springs. There were so many of them—a new mother, a new father, an older brother Stephen, an older sister Jodie, and younger twin brothers Brian and Brendan. If there was a way to say or do the wrong things with any of these people, Janie found it.
Now, when she looked back—which wasn’t far; it had happened only three years ago—she saw a long string of goofs and stubbornness. If only I had been nicer! she sometimes said to herself.
But being nice in a kidnap situation is tough.
Janie’s college essay spilled more truth than she had ever given anybody but her former boyfriend, Reeve. Still, it omitted two other reasons for going to college.
She wanted to make lifelong girlfriends. Sarah-Charlotte would always be her best friend, but at some disturbing level, Janie wanted to be free of Sarah-Charlotte; free to go her own way, whatever that was, and at her own speed, whatever that was.
And she wanted to meet the man who would become her husband.
Janie still loved Reeve, of course. But the boy next door had hurt her more than anyone. Whenever he was home from college (he was three years ahead of her), Reeve would plead, “I was stupid, Janie. But I’m older and wiser.”
He was older, anyway. And still the cutest guy on earth. But wiser?
Janie didn’t think so.
Copyright © 2013 by Caroline B. Cooney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.