The smell of spicy food was making Sam hungry. After a long wait at the restaurant, the waiter came with the food. He had a mask over his face. A bowl of soup was placed on the table. Sam looked for her parents, who were sitting with her, a minute ago. They were nowhere around. The soup was bubbling. Out of the bubbles, long serpents came out and wound around her neck. She was gasping for breath. Then everything became blurry.
Sam woke up with a start. An impenetrable darkness surrounded her. She could hear a faint sound of water dripping at a distance. Her head felt heavy. When she attempted to touch her head, Sam realized that she could not move her hands. An inexplicable fear filled her brain.
After some time, she started to perceive unfamiliar shapes around her. Even though she could wriggle her fingers and toes, her hands and feet were bound with strong ropes. She was lying on a wooden floor with a piece of sticky tape over her mouth. The stuffy smell in the enclosure told her that she was not at home.
The fifth grader thought of her comfortable room and her parents. They lived in a small town in Colorado where rugged mountains formed a beautiful backdrop along the western horizon. Her neighborhood streets, lined with trees, had corner flower beds. Her school, Blue Peak Elementary was a mere ten minutes' walk from her house.
The front-desk lady told the caregiver that Sam will be going to Nina's house after school. She left a message on her mother's cell phone. Sam's mother, Maya, busy in meetings, was surprised to learn this, when she came to pick her up at six o' clock. She called Nina's mom. “Hi Sue, when should I pick up Sam?” “Sorry, Maya. But Sam did not come to our house. It's Nina's birthday. Her teacher told us that she was feeling sick. We thought she had gone home.” Maya was shocked. She could hardly believe her ears. She called her husband, the neighbors, the clinic and what not, and finally, the police.
Sam was lying on the cold floor, waiting for something to happen. She remembered that her Math teacher was substituting for her class teacher. Her best friend Nina had brought cupcakes for the whole class to celebrate her birthday. Towards the end of the day, the teacher distributed them to everyone. Sam thought that smelt weird but ate it anyway. Sam tried hard to remember what happened after that. Unfortunately, her memory was completely blank.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps outside. The sound stopped for a brief moment followed by a key turning in the lock. Sam saw a bright ball of light coming. She closed her eyes instinctively. Footsteps came closer and stopped about two feet away from her. Cold water splashed on her face. A high-pitched sound behind the light spoke. “Look at these graphs,” it commanded her. She opened her eyes, slowly. On the sheets of paper, there were graphs of dollar value plotted against time. Each graph had a label, a meaningless jumble of letters like “BBL” or “ADR” or “SLV.”
Sam guessed the acronyms were stock symbols. Her father, Sujoy, an avid investor, regularly watched financial news on TV. Sam often saw Jim Cramer, talking about the bear and bull market. A few months ago, she remembered overhearing a conversation between her parents about how one could bet on price fluctuation of commodities. Her father had said, “This way you can make money even when stock prices go down.” Sam thought that was crazy.
Her thoughts, then, flew to her math teacher, Mr. Own, who had an accident and had to take six months leave. Thankfully, Mr. Jenkins joined as the replacement teacher within a week. He was a recent Masters graduate from Colorado University, Boulder. The principal had found him through a friend. Therefore, Mr. Jenkins started to teach even before the background-check papers came through.
He tried to make the math classes interesting. Last week, he had given a challenging project to engage the gifted fifth graders. “Write a program to compute the first thousand prime numbers.” Most of the kids were diligently working on the problem. The inexperienced teacher, fiddling with his college ring, was making rounds to check the progress and to answer questions when needed. He stopped in front of a happy girl, smiling at her computer screen. But then seeing her reading a science journal, he asked, “Sam, why aren't you working on your assignment?” “It's done, Mr. Jenkins,” replied Sam truthfully. He could not believe it. “OK. Answer this for me. What is the 1265th prime number?”
“One..zero..three..one..three,” Sam took five seconds to calculate the answer as she spoke. Mr. Jenkins had a puzzled look. “Sam, did you use the program to calculate this, earlier?” Sam lowered her gaze. “I solved it, mentally,” she admitted. His jaw dropped in astonishment. In a split second his eyes sparkled.
Mr. Jenkins, later, reported this to the principal. He wanted Sam to stay after school and learn advanced topics in geometry and probability from him. But her parents disagreed as they did not want to overburden their child. Within a few days, the entire elementary school was talking about the prodigy.
A sharp knife cut off the rope around Sam's hands. The alien voice spoke again. “Write an algorithm to pick the graph, which will increase the most, out of a given set. Do this quickly, if you want some food. Otherwise, starve to death.” The small enclosure reverberated with an evil laughter.
Sam hated bullies. She shook her head in disagreement. The effect was swift and drastic. A tight slap hit her across the face. She also noticed the knife's edge in the peripheral light. She fought against the idea but finally gave in.
When she finished writing the equations, her abductor walked away. But what he didn't know is that Sam managed to hide her cell phone all this time deep inside her back pocket. It was switched off as it usually was when she was at school. She turned it back on and almost simultaneously, heard footsteps, again. Sam shoved the phone back into her pocket, along with the last glimmer of hope she had to be rescued.
The duct tape was pulled off. “Eat quickly,” the voice boomed. When the bowl of pasta was placed near her, she could smell that weird stench, again. She carefully scooped the food out but let it drop inside her T-shirt. She smeared some of it around her mouth. Soon, the bowl was quite empty. The kidnapper now pulled her hands behind and tied it firmly. As a hand brushed off the food around her mouth, Sam saw a familiar college ring.
Sam felt drained and dozed off. She woke up to the sound of police sirens. The door was broken apart and light streamed in. Two police officers came in and picked her up. In the backyard, there stood two cop cars. Sam's parents came running to meet her. As she was getting into the car, she turned to check the kidnapper's face. Mr. Jenkins's bloodshot eyes were bulging out in anguish. With Sam's algorithms, he could have become rich.
Sam was glad that her phone had a tracking device that helped the police save her. Soon, Sam and her parents were home. She could smell the delicious food, waiting for them. Together, they sat for dinner. It felt good to be home.
Roshmi Bhaumik is a software engineer and lives in Boulder, Colorado.