‘You can’t just force us to stay here!’ yelled Margaret.
‘Shut up and sit down. I’m your father now and you’ll listen to me.’
‘You’re not my father!’
‘One more word from you and you’ll go to bed without any supper.’
The storm in his eyes frightened Margaret, so she decided to sit down. Looking around the room, she wondered why no one else was protesting. There were four of them and only one of him. There were no chains binding them. He hadn’t locked the door. How did he hold such power over them? He didn’t even have a weapon. There was the threat: he’d said that if any of them tried to leave he’d kill their family. Why did they all so readily believe him?
He was at least middle-aged, with a balding head sprouting a few grey strands around the sides, and a long, unkempt beard, reddish-brown in colour. His eyes were grey, and red veins flecked the whites, making it appear as though he hadn’t slept in days. He kept checking his mobile phone, seemed edgy, fidgety.
What could he be planning to do with them?
Miranda raised a hand; a slight girl, maybe nine years old, with extremely long blonde hair that had probably never seen a pair of scissors. Her eyes were red from crying; she’d hardly stopped snivelling and asking for her mother since she’d got here.
‘What is it, Miranda?’ huffed the man.
‘Can I go to the toilet?’
‘Yes, but be quick. And no games or I’ll kill your family.’
That threat again.
When Miranda returned, the man asked them all to sit around a large table at the rear of the kitchen.
Margaret turned her attention to the others: Miranda continued to snivel; Kevin appeared sad but kept quiet—he looked about eight years old, in Margaret’s estimation. Janice was the eldest of the captives; a twenty-something girl whose deep frown hadn’t shifted for even a moment.
Janice and Kevin had already been here when Margaret arrived. Miranda was the last one to be brought here, a couple of hours ago.
‘You’re probably all wondering what I’ve brought you here for,’ said the man. ‘Let me start by introducing myself.’
They were all seated at the imposing large oak table, their captor at the head and two of them on either side.
‘My name’s Max. Janice, you can call me Max. I’m your husband.’
Janice gasped and then retched.
‘Don’t act so shocked. You’ll get used to it.’ Max rolled his eyes. ‘The rest of you will call me Dad. I’m your new dad. Again, you’ll get used to it.’
Miranda began to cry. ‘I want my mum.’
‘Jan love, see to the child. Janice is your new mum, everyone. You’ll get used to that too.’
‘I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but this is weird. I’m leaving,’ said Margaret, standing up. ‘You can’t hold us here.’ She walked towards the kitchen door.
‘If you have any sense, you’ll return to the table. I have my people watching your parents’ home. If you leave, they’ll be dead within minutes.’
Margaret thought of her mum and dad. Was he bluffing? She still had her mobile phone; perhaps she could send them a text when his back was turned. Warn them. Tell them to leave the house.
‘We’re going to have fun. It’s an experiment.’ Max peered around the table through squinted eyes.
‘You can’t just round people up for an experiment, we’re not mice!’ screamed Margaret.
‘Well, you see,’ Max pointed a spindly finger at Margaret, ‘it’s just that kind of thinking that proves to me you deserve to be here. Need to be here. You haven’t been raised right. Mice have feelings too, you know.’
Margaret covered her face with her hands and breathed out in exasperation. Finally, she turned around and sat back at the kitchen table.
‘There, you see. You’re starting to understand,’ said Max. ‘We’re going to be living together as a family.’
‘This is crazy. You’re crazy!’ Margaret boomed. ‘We’re as far removed from a family as you could get. We don’t even know each other.’
‘You teenagers think you’re so clever these days, don’t you? So, tell us, Maggie, what does family mean to you?’
‘My name’s Margaret, not Maggie. And my family is my mum and dad, who are at home and expecting me to return there.’
‘I don’t have a dad,’ said Kevin.
Everyone gawped at him as if shocked to find out he could speak.
‘You do now,’ said Max. ‘I’m your dad. How does that make you feel?’
‘Are you my real dad?’ asked Kevin.
‘Yes,’ said Max.
‘So you came to get me? I knew you would. Mum said you left us and you never loved us.’
‘Oh, shut up boy. I’m not that dad. I’m a new one. I have no idea who your actual dad was. He probably left because you were so annoying.’
‘I was only two years old when he left.’
‘That’s the worst age: temper tantrums. They call it “Terrible Twos”, don’t they? No wonder he left.’
‘Why are we here?’ asked Miranda between sniffles.
‘I’m sixty-five next June and I’ve never known what it’s like to live with a family,’ explained Max. ‘Have you any idea what that feels like? You may all feel hard done by because I’ve taken you from your homes, but believe me, your suffering is nothing compared to the social exclusion, loneliness, and suffering I have endured my whole life.’
‘Oh, this is ridiculous!‘ snapped Janice. ‘I won’t stand for it. I’m calling the police.’ She took her phone from her jacket pocket.
‘You call them, but if you do, that child of yours and your beloved husband will both be dead before they get here. My people are watching your house.’ He looked around at the others with a piercing scowl. ‘They’re watching all of your houses. One false move and you will know what it’s like to have no family.’
Janice dropped her phone onto the wooden table.
‘You keep saying your people. If you don’t have a family and were so isolated and lonely, who are these people? I don’t believe you.’ Margaret stood up.
‘My people are a group of criminals I met in prison. I was in there for quite some time. I killed some people in the past.’
‘This doesn’t make sense,’ said Janice as she retrieved her phone with a shaky hand.
‘Life doesn’t make sense,’ said Max.
‘When you say you don’t have a family, what happened to them? Did you kill them?’ asked Janice, fear in her eyes.
‘No. I never had a family. I was sent to an orphanage at a young age. Story was, my parents were killed in a war somewhere. I never found out the details. I had a few foster carers; none of them lasted long: they didn’t want the burden of an unhappy child. When I was a teenager, I ran away from a care home and lived rough for years. I got into a few fights, killed a few people and ended up in jail. I was released about a year ago and given housing by the local council. This place. I just want a normal life. Wife, kids.’
‘This is about as far from normal as you could get,’ said Janice. ‘You can’t force people to be your family. I sympathise with your story but I can’t condone this. Look at these children. They’re terrified. Our families will be looking for us. You won’t get away with this.’
‘Maybe not, but unlike you I have nothing to lose, which brings me back to my earlier point: I doubt any of you can claim to have faced anything close to the suffering I’ve been through. You all have idyllic lives compared to mine.’
‘My mum’s dying,’ said Miranda, still sniffling.
Max remained silent.
Margaret sensed a flicker of compassion in his gaze; would he release the girl?
‘She might be dead within weeks. She’s only been given a month by her doctor. I want to see her,’ blubbered Miranda.
‘Forget them. They’re your past. You have a new family here. Janice is your mum now. Maybe this is God’s way of making sure you’re cared for. I mean, who would look after you after your mum dies?’
‘I’m your dad, remember?’
Miranda stood up. ‘No, you’re not!’ She headed for the door.
‘Go home. I didn’t want a snivelling wreck of a daughter, anyway. I’ll be fine with my Kevin and Maggie.’
Miranda ran out of the room.
‘How will she get home?’ asked Janice. ‘She’s only a child. Maybe I should take her.’
‘Nice try,’ said Max. ‘No one else is leaving here.’
‘I’m supposed to collect my daughter from school today,’ complained Janice. ‘Can I at least call my husband and let him know he has to collect her? I won’t say anything else.’
‘Okay, but be quick.’
Janice dialled a number and held her mobile to her ear. ‘There’s no reply. I’ll send a text.’
‘Let me see it before you send it.’
Janice typed into the phone and then held it towards Max.
‘Right. I think you should all give me your phones. No more access to the outside world until you get used to being my family.’
He collected their phones and placed them in a cupboard above the kitchen sink, locking the door.
‘You do realise that if this is a housing association property you need to let them know others are living with you,’ said Janice.
‘No one needs to know.’
‘Our families will be looking for us.’
‘You keep saying that,’ snarled Max. ‘Perhaps they’re happy you’re gone. Have you considered that?’
‘My mum won’t care,’ said Kevin. ‘She takes drugs and has lots of boyfriends. Most of the time I have to take care of myself.’
Max frowned. ‘You mean you prefer being here?’
‘Yeah,’ said Kevin. ‘I always wanted a dad. I think you’ll look after me, won’t you?’
‘I don’t need that kind of responsibility. That’s why I picked you rather than a toddler. You can look after yourself.’
‘Um… dads have to take responsibility for children under sixteen,’ blurted Janice.
‘Yes, but I was expecting someone from a normal family, not a kid who is so clingy.’
‘Are you going to leave like my dad?’ asked Kevin.
‘What?’ Max stood up. ‘I think you should go home, Kevin; your mum needs you more than I do.’ He returned Kevin’s phone to him.
‘But you said you were my dad.’
Max led Kevin out of the room, practically pushing him outside. ‘Some family this is turning out to be,’ he moaned. ‘Oh well, at least I have a wife and a daughter who will listen to everything I say. We’ll be fine on our own. We don’t need them, do we?’
‘Will Miranda and Kevin be all right? What about your people? The ones watching their houses,’ asked Janice.
‘Don’t worry about them; they only act on my instructions.’
There was a loud knock on the front door. It repeated after a short moment and a man’s voice called: ‘Max Robins? Police. Open up.’
‘Police? Duck, you two. Go into the bedroom and hide under the bed, or in the wardrobe. If you don’t, your families will die. If not today, as soon as I get out of prison.’
Janice took Margaret’s hand and led her in the direction Max had pointed.
Outside the door stood two police officers and Miranda, who was no longer crying but had a smile upon her face.
‘Mr Robins, we understand you are holding three people against their will.’
‘You can’t enter without a search warrant.’
‘Is that a confession?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘They’re in there,’ said Miranda, pointing towards the kitchen.
‘Come in and have a look, if you must,’ said Max.
He led them through to the kitchen.
‘See? No one here. That girl is slightly crazy, I think. I’m not sure what she was doing here earlier. She came here and claimed to be my daughter, then when I told her to leave, she said she was going to tell the police. She’s completely bonkers if you ask me.’
Margaret and Janice emerged from the bedroom.
One of the police officers proceeded to place handcuffs on Max. ‘We’ve been looking for you. Let’s get you back to prison, hey?’
The other officer explained, ‘Mr Robins escaped from prison on a parole day. Yesterday. He won’t be getting any more of those for the foreseeable future.’
Max sneered at the girls over his shoulder. ‘What are you gawping at? Call yourselves family? You’re traitors! I’m better off alone.’