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Envelopes and Thieves Don’t Mix (3rd Prize - 16-18 years)

March, 2013
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Envelopes and Thieves Don’t Mix

Racing through the streets, brushing past strangers of various ages and walking speeds, I see the door to the bank getting closer and closer. And finally too, ’cause I need to get this payment in if it’s the last thing that I do. Now, now, I’m not being melodramatic or anything, but Mr.Bigfacelandlord is gonna freak if I miss his ever-so-important deadline by a few hours again.

I push my freezing fingers back into my pocket to touch that envelope for maybe the thousandth time… 

Just in time to find that it’s not actually there. Oh God. It was there the last time I checked - maybe a block back? So there was no choice but to kill my hopes of being three seconds early with the payment, and sulk back through the wet, mud-filled sidewalks, hoping that those street urchins haven’t stolen the darn thing.

When I finally catch glimpse of my creamy white paper, it’s in the hands of someone else.

A pink-gloved, short, female someone.

"Hey, that’s mine! Give it back already!"

She twirls around, looks me in the eye, and starts to laugh at me — a strangled-sounding guffaw. I can barely keep myself from reaching out and trying to wring that delicate white neck of hers. "Finders keepers, losers weepers," she rhymes like a bratty kid, and disappears into the crowd at a run.

There’s nothing I can do but follow her. Maybe it’s not that obvious, but I’m not as rich as I pretend to be. It’s taken me long enough to scrape together that sum of 2012 dollars, and there’s no way that I’ll be terrorized by a pretty face into giving away my spoils. I’ve spent enough time in a cubicle, mindlessly pushing paper, to earn it in the first place.

She’s unlucky though, just a few minutes later, she falls straight into one of those humungous sidewalk cracks. Blame our incompetent government, not me. They’re the ones who keep adding to the deficit.

I grab her shoulder and prevent her from making a mud pancake with her face. "Well, girlie, why’re you stealing someone else’s hard work. With that pretty face, can’t you do something else? Sell those face whitening creams?" 

The woman narrows her eyes as though contemplating an escape, but I’ve got a tight grasp on her coat collar. Finally, with a grimace as though talking to me is underneath her, "I’ve got a car that I’ve got an eye on down at the dealer shop."

Probably a shiny red paint, leather seats, GPS type of car if I’m any one to judge by. God knows that I’ve done the same thing, but it’s my money that she’s going to spend on that stupid pursuit. Ripping my 2012 dollars from her hands, I fix her with my most terrifying scowl, just to see her burst into tears.

Oh, hell.

"What? Do you really want that car so much?" It’s all I can do to keep her loud sobs from making my heart turn into mush.

She rubs grit-covered hands over her eyes, before looking up with a carefully neutral expression. "It’s not just that," she tries to say, but halfway through her voice breaks, and she’s back to crying.

"People are starting to stare," I say then, looking at the tens of curious passersby who are probably imagining me as a horrible villain even as I try to console her. "I - can we do this somewhere else?" I tug on her shoulder, but she refuses to move. And boy, is she heavy for her size. "Come on."

"No!" she shouts.

And there’s nothing I can do, but leave her in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve got a bill to pay, alright? It’s not as though I’m being heartless or anything. Right as I’m one step away from the bank, the thief from before grabs my shoulder and pulls me backwards. I’m nearly in the mood to tell her to shod off, but then she finally chokes out an explanation. "I - lied. I-It’s for a train ticket. To visit my mom. She’s - she’s - lung cancer."

I barely have enough for myself - those newfangled random acts of kindness should go away and stay with those bluebloods like they belong. Of course, it’s me and my apartment that get paid for first, so I enter the bank and do just that.

When I’m finally finish that goddamned task - that stupid bank lady decided to make me wait twenty minutes as punishment for being late - the first thing I see when the cold outside air hits me in the face is that thief. Apparently, she’s decided that I’m her new source of money.

I open my hands wide, empty. "I’m just as broke as you are, y’know? Ask the government, they’ve been giving out handouts like there’s no tomorrow. Those election year shenanigans and all that."

No response other than a few huffing sniffles she gives me. 

I scratch at my hair awkwardly. The crowd has gathered again because people these days have nothing else to do with their time. "Okay, I get it, alright?" I say. "But really, there’s nothing that I can do."

….

"I’m serious. Crying at me isn’t going to make me suddenly grow money from my pockets." By this point, it feels like I’m pleading with a woman, and that’s something that I just don’t do.

"Okay, okay, fine. Lead me to the train station." I don’t know what’s gotten into me, but I blurt that out for some reason.
She seems equally surprised, and peers up from beneath her eyelashes - glistening with teardrops. "Really? Are you serious?" She seems more afraid than hopeful and keeps glancing around furtively. "You’re not just doing this as a joke, right?" I nod, but somehow she doesn’t seem to be convinced. Heck, do I look so shady that my word means nothing? "You promise?"

"I promise, alright?" Unfortunately, however much I wish that I hadn’t said it, now I’m stuck with it.

The pink-gloved female grabs my fingers in her own and pulls me forward. Hell, other than her red, blotchy eyes, if I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have known that she was bawling her eyes out like a baby just a few seconds ago.

We’re there before I know it. The dingy, grey building looms before us, but I hardly have time to check out the sights before she pulls me in front of a signboard. It’s obvious that she knows this place far too well if her adroit navigation is anything to go by.

The place is filthy, ill-decorated, and disgusting - even when one ignores the thousands of hobos that use the building as a communal bed. Don’t even start me complaining on the walls. They’re riddled with holes, blanketed in spider webs, painted so poorly the artist must’ve been a preschooler, and make the rest of building look spectacular. It’s just as well that I’m here. This is not a place that anyone should be visiting alone.

"The next train to Wonsly is 20:12 PM," she tells me, pointing. "So 8ish."

"Wonsly? That ugly dump? - wait. Don’t tell me your mother lives in that hole!" Forgive me for my rude language, but seriously, there’s only one place that’s worse than the post-apocalyptic world and that’s Wonsly. A smaller, dirtier, stupider pile of shacks has never been seen on this Earth.

She looks at me with large, pleading eyes, and I have a sudden urge to swallow my words. Looking back at the sign,  I follow her wavering finger to the end of the row.

"Two hundred dollars? Are you kidding me? What is this - a luxury ride with butlers? And throw in one of those British Olympic gymnasts riding a unicorn while you’re at it!"

With merely a look, she makes whatever was going to burst out of my mouth disappear. I suppose it’s some sort of magical female thing. "You promised." Cue shivering bone marrow. 

I spread my hands out, empty. Somehow, my eyes avert themselves as though ashamed, and I guess that’s what I feel right now. "I know, thie- er, what’s your name?" She doesn’t answer me, so I continue onwards, heart beating a frantic pace on my ribcage. "I know I promised, but - I just - I don’t know how to - you know." Be a man, Ark. "I don’t have that kind of cash lying ’round."

Taking a deep breath, I finally manage to wrench my eyes to her.

To my greatest shame, her eyes are practically drowning with tears. I turn to go as there’s nothing else that I can do in this predicament, hurrying away from the girl as quickly as I can. I’m hardly able to think of her standing back there - cold, alone, and hurting - and those wet eyes burn into my back, criticizing me for everything that I’ve ever done wrong.

Lost inside my own muddled up feelings, I bump into someone’s shoulder and wrench my head up to look them in the eye. "Sorry," I murmur, before what I’m seeing finally hits me in the brain. Forgive me, but thinking fast has never been my specialty.

It’s a man, if he even is one under all of that mud.

A dirty, beat-up hat rests haphazardly on his head, barely concealing even a lock of greasy, grimy brown hair. There’s so little of his face that isn’t coated with a blanket of dirt that I doubt he even knows what the words ‘personal hygiene’ are supposed to mean. With a hacking cough, he growls deep into his throat and spits out a wad of something. It glistens under the pale lights, slips to the ground, and sits there mockingly.

I jump backwards, with my skin trying to run away as fast as it can, but then images float through my brain. Thank you, imagination. The thief, alone - pretty, pale-necked, short. Distinctly female. Distinctly fragile. Surrounded by a crowd of people who are more dirt than human. One of them spits like this one just did, and it lands on her face.

"Oh, darn," I murmur to myself as I run back to where she’s standing, still frozen in front of the sign. She doesn’t look up at my approach, just stares as though that table of numerals will prevent the apocalypse. "I can’t leave you alone like this," I say to her as an explanation. "I’ll just drive you to Wonsly."

She gawks at me, and I hurriedly look down at my clothes to make sure that that oddball didn’t turn me into a freak.

"Oh, come on. Let’s go already. Maybe you could even introduce me to that beautiful mother of yours while we’re at it."

It’s times like these when I’m grateful that my home is just a few blocks away. We arrive in the next few minutes and as she looks at my $2012-rent-per-month apartment and copper-hued vintage car, I feel a tinge of guilt. Maybe I need to balance my budget as much as the government needs to.

As she slips into the leather seat to my not-so-beautiful-now car, breathing in that new car smell, I gun the engine. She awakens with a purr, and I pat the dashboard lovingly. Never mind, I don’t hate myself. These little luxuries are my reason for life. "Alright then, THIEF - actually, what is your name?"

"Erin," she gives a light-hearted giggle, and somehow that makes me feel at ease. "Thanks," she mouths, or so my ego wants to think. Really could be anything similar to it though.

"ERIN’S MOTHER! HERE WE COME!"



By Grace Lu

Shanghai American School - Pudong

 

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