The smell of spicy food was making Sam hungry. After a long wait at the restaurant, the waiter came to their table with the food. He had a mask over his face. A bowl of lentil 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 hazy.
Sam woke up with a start. An impenetrable envelope of darkness surrounded her. She could hear a faint sound of water dripping, at a distance. Her head felt heavy. Sam realized that she could not move her hands when she attempted to touch her head. This was not a nightmare. Inexplicable fear filled her brain.
After some time, she started to perceive unfamiliar shapes of objects around her. She could also 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. Sam felt tired and hungry. The stuffy smell in the enclosure told her she was not at home.
Sam thought of her comfortable house in a small town in northern Colorado. Rugged mountains formed a beautiful backdrop along the western horizon. Her neighborhood streets had well-maintained flower patches and were lined with tall trees. Her school, Blue Peak Elementary was a mere ten minutes’ walk from her house. Her mother usually picked up Sam from the after-care program on her way home from work.
The front-desk lady told the caregiver that Sam will be going to Nina’s house after school. The caregiver left a message on her mother’s cell phone, as was the usual agreement. 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. Sam did not come to our house. We thought she would. It’s Nina’s birthday today. Her teacher told us that she was feeling sick. We thought she had gone home.” Maya was taken aback. She called her husband then the neighbors, then the clinic. Finally, Sam’s parents thought it best to inform the police.
Sam was lying on the cold floor, waiting for something to happen. She remembered 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 it smelt weird and tasted too sweet. She ate it anyways. 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 from her. Cold water splashed on her face. A high-pitched changed voice spoke behind the light. “Look at these graphs,” it commanded her. She opened her eyes, slowly. On the sheets of paper, there were graphs of dollar values plotted against time. Each graph had a label, a meaningless jumble of letters like “BBL” or “ADR” or “SLV”. Even though the graphs went up and down randomly over short periods, over the long range they showed a definite trend.
Sam guessed the acronyms were stock symbols. Her father, Jay, an avid investor, regularly watched financial news on TV. A few months ago, she remembered overhearing a conversation her parents were having 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. In fact, she was also waiting to share some crazy news with her parents.
Sam was not going to have any math class until their principal, Mr. Ashenbaum found a replacement math teacher. Their current math teacher Mr. Owen had gotten into a serious car accident that weekend. He had survived with severe injuries. He had to take 6 months’ medical 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.
When the report finally came last month, Mr. Ashenbaum was a little surprised. Jonathan Jenkins was a foster child. His biological parents had divorced when he was barely a teenager. His father was a construction worker and his mother was a waitress. Jonathan was lucky to get a good foster home and pursue higher education. His younger brother Aaron became a drug addict and juvenile offender. Mr. Ashenbaum hesitated to call off the appointment. It was just for a few more months.
Early in life, Jonathan Jenkins learned the importance of money. He was cautious to spend only when it was necessary. He had a big college loan to pay off. With a steady income from his appointment, he was looking to invest the money that he had saved up.
Mr. Jenkins 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. He appeared annoyed, seeing her reading a science journal. “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 and he smiled.
All the kids turned to Sam in admiration. 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 Sam’s parents disagreed. 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 calculate the probability of the value going up. 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 to indicate 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. It was dark again.
However, Sam’s hands were free. She searched in her pocket for her phone. It was switched off. Sam usually turned it off when she was at school. She turned it back on. Almost simultaneously, she heard footsteps, again. Sam shoved the phone back into her pocket.
The duct tape was pulled off. “Eat quickly,” the voice threatened. When the bowl of pasta was placed near her, she sensed that weird smell, again. She carefully scooped the food out but let it drop inside her T-shirt just before she lifted it to her lips. 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, to put a tape over her mouth, Sam saw a familiar college ring.
Sam, feeling tired, 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. Sam saw that she was being held up in a tool shed. 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 algorithm, he could have become rich.
Sam was glad that her phone had a tracking device that helped the police save her. Before long, Sam and her parents were home. She could smell the delicious food, waiting for them. Together they sat for dinner. Sam hungrily gobbled up the food. It felt so good to be back, home!