Shade

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
A young man from a poor family goes to great length to provide for his loved ones.

Submitted: June 08, 2017

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Submitted: June 08, 2017

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“I found this in the bathroom.”

The kid behind the counter looked up from his phone. His nametag read Eric. “Oh?” he asked, smiling politely. He had an acne-ridden face and a mop of curly red hair that dangled in front of his eyes.

Jon held up a pearl necklace. “It was just sitting there, in the sink.” He set it on the counter and looked at it appraisingly, rubbing his jawline. “Sure looks nice,” he mumbled. “Does the store have a lost and found, or anything like that?”

Eric cast a disinterested glance at the necklace. “Yep. It’s behind the counter.” He cleared his throat and recited in a monotone: “You can leave it here and give us your number. If no one claims it in ten business days, it’s yours.”

Jon laughed once. “Thanks, kid, but I don’t think I’ll need it for anything. If no one comes for it, I  don’t want it either.” He looked back at the necklace and furrowed his eyebrows. “Then again, it does look really expensive.” He clicked his tongue, then laughed again. “Yeah, sure. I’ll leave my numb--oh! I completely forgot why I came in here in the first place.” He whistled lightly and walked over to the refrigerator section. He browsed for a moment, picked out a bottle of water, and returned to the counter.

“That’ll be one-oh-four,” Eric said.

Jon fished a ten out of his wallet. After he handed it to Eric, he paused, looking out the window. He smiled and waved. Eric counted out the change and handed it to Jon. Moments later, the store’s phone rang.

“Excuse me,” Eric said. He picked up the phone.

“No problem.”

“Hello?” Eric said. “Yes, it is.”

Whistling, he leaned against the counter and looked around the store as he waited. He pulled out one hand and examined his nails. He noticed his hand was shaking and quickly lowered it, glancing at Eric. The kid was looking out the window as he listened to the other line.

“Yep, we’ll still be open.” Eric paused. Jon could faintly hear a voice coming from the phone. “Uh, you too. Bye.” He hung up and looked at Jon. “It’s your lucky day, man.”

Jon raised an eyebrow. “Is it, now? How do you figure?”

“That guy on the phone just called about his missing pearl necklace.” Eric nodded at the jewelry on the counter. “He said he bought it for his fiancee and is offering a two hundred dollar reward to anyone who finds it.” He smiled. “Pretty lucky, right?”

Jon didn’t initially answer, instead scratching the back of his head. “Did he say how soon he’ll be here?”

“Yes, actually. He said he’ll be down in around twenty minutes.”

Again, Jon didn’t immediately respond. He sighed, looking at his watch. He ran a hand through his hair. “That, uh, that doesn’t work for me. I have a job interview across town in fifteen minutes.”  Jon looked at the necklace. “Hmm. Hey, buddy. Would you want to help me out with this?”

Eric raised an eyebrow. “How do you mean?”

“Well,” Jon began slowly, “I could leave the necklace here, and we split the reward.” He frowned and mumbled: “But how would that work?” He trailed off and rubbed the back of his neck. He let his gaze fall onto the cash register.

After a moment, Eric’s eyes lit up. “Oh! I could give you a hundred dollars, and then I give the necklace to that guy when he gets here.” Almost as an afterthought, he added: “That way we both win, right?”

After a moment of thought, Jon shrugged. “Fine with me. So, what? You just carry that kind of money around with you?”

Eric tapped his knuckles on the counter, not meeting Jon’s gaze. “I could take it from the cash register. When that guy gives me the two hundred, I can replace what I gave you.”

Jon was silent for a moment. “Seems kinda sketchy to me.” He looked at his watch. “Sure, fine.”

Eric quickly popped open the register. He face fell. “Uh, we don’t have any hundreds.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Jon said. He started drumming his fingers on the cap of the water bottle. “Tens, twenties, fives. Whatever you have is fine.”

The kid nodded, then quickly counted out a handful of bills. He hesitated, looking between Jon and the necklace. Jon could practically see the gears churning.

“I really don’t think I should be doing this.”

“That’s fine. You don’t need to give me anything. I’ll give you my number, take the necklace, and leave. When that guy comes to pick it up, you can have him call me. Later, of course, because I don’t want to interrupted during my interview.” He started to step away.

“Uh . . .” Eric bit his lip. He thought for a moment. “Okay, okay.”

He thrust the money at Jon, who pocketed it with shaky hands. A bead of sweat ran down Jon’s face, catching on his eyelash. He quickly wiped it off.

“I’ll replace it, it’s fine,” Eric said, mostly to himself. He took the necklace off the counter and studied it, turning it over in his hands.

“Now that we have that settled,” Jon said, “where were we?” He fiddled with the bottle of water, spinning it around and sloshing the contents.

Jon heard the door open. He shifted his weight to his back foot and looked over. His heart skipped a beat. A tall, broad-shouldered police officer had just entered the store. He had a freshly shaven face, a bulbous nose, and several chins.

The sound of rushing blood filled Jon’s ears, and he could hardly hear anything over it. “Huh--evening, officer,” he called, looking at the man’s feet. His voice sounded thin and shaky to his own ears.

The officer tipped his hat toward the two of them, then meandered over to the aisles. Jon could faintly smell sweat as the officer walked past.

He turned back to Eric. “Ah, right,” he said, speaking just above a whisper. “I still need change.”

“Hmm?” Eric looked up from the necklace.

“I need change,” Jon repeated, speaking only marginally louder.

“Oh. Sorry.” Eric paused, his eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed. He scratched behind his ear. “What did I owe you?”

Jon looked up and to the right. “Nine dollars, I think.” He tapped his hand against his thigh. The store suddenly felt very warm. He resisted the urge to tug at his collar.

Eric frowned, then shook his head. “Right, right.” He opened the cash register again and handed Jon the money.

“Thanks,” Jon said. He swallowed. “Have a good day.” He cast a glance over to the cop. He was crouched down, grabbing something from a shelf.

“You, too, man. Thanks,” Eric said in a subdued voice, his attention back on the necklace.

Before leaving, Jon paused, looking up. “It sure is bright in here, isn’t it?”

He turned and walked out of the store, tossing the bottle between his hands. He would have whistled, but his mouth too dry. Once he was through the doors, he turned right and walked to the end of the block. He went into an alley, pressed his back against the wall, and let out the breath he hadn’t realize he was holding.

He took the money out of his pocket and stared at it in disbelief. He laughed. It started as a slow, dry chuckle but evolved into an almost maniacal cackle. His legs gave out and he dropped to his hands and knees. Pebbles and bits of loose asphalt dug into his palms. The fit slowly died out. He sat back against the wall and wiped the tears from his eyes.

The sound of footsteps approached him. He stiffened. He shoved the money back in his pocket, but he kept his hand on it, afraid that he would somehow lose it. The steps grew closer and closer. A shadow peaked out from around the corner. Jon’s heartbeat quickened. He envisioned the chubby officer from the store walking around the corner, scowling and brandishing a pair of handcuffs.

A tall, familiar young man walked around the corner. Jon sighed in relief. The guy turned toward Jon. His dirty blond hair poked out the edges of his beanie, and his eyes were shrouded behind sunglasses. He smirked at Jon. “How’d it go?” he asked.

Jon shrugged, looked away, and pulled out the wad of bills. When he heard the other guy laugh, Jon couldn’t help but smile.

“God, Austin, I can’t believe it was so easy!” He loosened his tie.

Austin grabbed Jon by his shoulders and hoisted him to his feet. He looked Jon up and down. “What’d I say? I knew you had it in you.” He clapped Jon on the back. “How much you get ‘em for?”

“A hundred, just like you told me to do.” He shook the bottle of water. “I got him to pay me for buying this. Nine dollars.” He could see himself in Austin’s sunglasses.

“No kiddin’? You think of that yourself?” Jon nodded. “Not too shabby, Arnette. Not too shabby.” He cleared his throat. “I hate to do this to you, but you know how it goes. Cost of merchandise, and distribution, and all that.” He held out his hand, palm up.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jon separated two twenties and a ten. He tried slapping the money into Austin’s hand, but Austin pulled back his arm at the last second. Jon frowned.

“Actually, dude, I’ll give you a break. This time.”

Jon raised an eyebrow. “Really? You, passing up on an opportunity to get money?” He sniffed. “You really have changed these past couple years.”

Austin shrugged. “I dunno, man. What can I say? Call me sentimental, but until last week, I hadn’t seen you since high school. I wouldn’t feel right takin’ your money for a knockoff necklace.” He smirked. “Just don’t get used to it.”

Jon couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you.” He would have said more, but he just processed something Austin said.

Knockoff necklace.

He wondered what Eric was doing. Any minute now, a man was supposed to walk into that gas station and make the kid a hundred dollars richer. When that didn’t happen, the store would be out money, and Eric would be paying for it, one way or another.

He shook his head. “Anyway. Should I swing by your place later?”

“What for?”

“To give you back these clothes,” Jon said, tugging at the collar of his blazer.

Austin smirked. “They helped you get in character, didn’t they? Help you sell the deal?” Jon shrugged. “Nah. Keep ‘em, man.” With a laugh, he added: “You keep hangin’ around me, you’ll need ‘em again. Besides, the clothes you already have aren’t exactly in pristine condition. You could use some new threads.” He raised an eyebrow. “Actually . . . there’s something you and your fancy new clothes could help me with, right now.” He pushed his sunglasses up on his forehead and looked at the sky. “We still have a little daylight left . . .”

Jon studied Austin’s face. “Um, no, Austin, I told you. I’m only doing this one time. It’s not right stealing from people like this.”

Stealing Austin mouthed, shaking his head. “Whatever, man.” He grabbed Jon’s wrist and held it to his face, looking at his watch. He wiggled his eyebrows, and the sunglasses fell back into place. He let go of Jon and turned around. “Well, I’ll be seeing ya.”

“Oh. Uh, yeah. See you.”

Austin waved without turning around.

Jon watched until he left, then tucked away the money. He walked over to a dumpster and got on his hands and knees, reaching underneath and pulling out a plastic bag. He checked inside, then stood. He looked at his watch himself and did a doubletake. He groaned.

He was already a half hour late. He might as well make another stop on the way home.

 

The stairs creaked as Jon climbed them. He carried two plastic bags in his left hand, and he had changed into a worn dark blue T-shirt and faded jeans. When he got to the top of the stairwell, he turned down a hallway. He walked until he reached the third door on the right--apartment 206--and did a shave and a haircut knock.

He heard a chair slide against the floor, followed by footsteps. After a moment, the door opened. Jon’s twin sister Julia stood in the doorframe. As always, it was dim inside, making her bright blue eyes stand out. Her dark hair flowed over her shoulders, framing her face.

She crossed her arms. “You’re late.” She looked at the plastic bags he was holding. “What’s in those?”

“Sorry, I lost track of time.”

“You didn’t answer me.”

Jon stepped past her and inside. Around the kitchen table, his three younger siblings were playing with cards. They sat clockwise, from oldest to youngest: his brother Sammy and other sisters Lilly and Jess. A fourth spot was set up to Sammy’s right. They looked up when he entered.

“Hey, kids, I’m hooome!” Jon called, as he did every time he entered the apartment.

Lilly pretended not to hear him. Sammy waved. Jess slid back from the table and ran to him, tackling his waist in a bear hug. He hugged the back of her head with his free hand.

“Miss me, kiddo?” he asked.

She looked up at him, her wispy blonde bangs dangling in front of her eyes. “Yeah. Why were you gone so long?”

“Sorry. I had to work later than I anticipated.”

Her mouth fell open, forming a small O. “What’s ant-is-uh-paited?”

“It means he was doing something he shouldn’t have been,” Julia called, still standing by the door. At the table, Sammy bit his lips to keep from smiling.

Jon’s heart skipped a beat. He tightened his right hand into a fist, then unclenched and stretched his fingers.

“Don’t listen to her,” he said.

He freed himself from his sister’s death grip and went over to the table, Jess following at his heels. He stood between Sam and Lilly, observing the cards.

“Who’s winning?”

“Lilly,” Jess said, “but she’s cheating.” She looked at her sister and blew her a raspberry. Lilly squinted back, her eyes green slits.

Jon bumped Lilly’s shoulder. “What?” he said. “That’s not cool.”

Jess looked at Jon. “Watch this. Hey, Lilly, have any sevens?”

“No.”

“She’s lying.”

With exaggerated motions, Jon craned his neck, looking over Lilly’s shoulder. He had to strain his eyes to make out the details on her cards. “Hey, she is cheating,” he lied.

Lilly threw her cards on the table and stomped off to the couch. Jon looked at Sam. “Man,” he stage whispered, “who knew ten-year-olds could be such babies?”

“I can still hear you!” her voice called. “And I’m eleven!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. “Now come back here; I have a late present for you, birthday girl.”

Lilly peeked over the back of the couch, just her eyes visible.

Jon set one of the plastic bags on the table, making it wobble on its flimsy legs. “Well, it’s for all of you, actually. I know you guys haven’t been able to eat a whole lot lately. So I’ve been saving my pennies to get this stuff.” He waved his fingers by his head. “Go crazy, kids.”

He walked off to the side, near Julia, and watched. Jess hastily shoved the cards to one corner of the table, then the kids opened the bag and started pulling things out.

“Did Johnson come by today?” he asked Julia in a hushed voice.

She nodded stiffly. “He says tomorrow is as long as he’ll wait. Then we’re out.” She hugged herself.

Jon chewed on his bottom lip. He sighed. “That’s fine. I got my paycheck today--just enough to cover rent.”

Julia gave an a look, but he pretended not to notice.

Jess opened a box of cereal and tried shoving her whole hand in, but Sam caught her eye and shook his head.

“Atta boy,” Jon said under his breath, smiling.

“Hey, kids,” Julia called out. “Time for bed.”

Oh no Jon thought. He took a half step away from her and rubbed at his jawline.

In unison, all three kids turned and stared at Julia. There was a beat of silence, during which the kids glanced at each other.

“But it’s only eight!” Jess said.

Julia raised her eyebrows. “I know. Just . . . turn in early tonight, okay?”

“But we just got food,” Sammy said.

“It’ll still be there tomorrow.”

A short pause. With a sigh, Sammy stood and walked toward his room. The girls followed his lead. Julia watched as they rounded the corner. The moment they were out of sigh, she whipped around and slapped Jon’s arm.

“Where were you?”

“Ow,” he complained, rubbing where she hit him. “I told you: I was working late. What’s the big deal?”

She crossed her arms. “Working, huh? So you were at the supermarket all day?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Uh-huh. What’s in the other bag?”

“Nothing important.” He swallowed. “Uh, look, it’s been a long day. I just want to relax for a while.” Avoiding her eyes, he took a seat on the couch and ran a hand over his face. The couch was so old, it offered no support. Jon adjusted his weight and felt places were the wooden frame was loose. He set the bag on the floor next to his feet.

“Jon. I called.”

“You called,” he repeated. “And I’m supposed to know what that means?”

“The supermarket.” She studied Jon’s face. The lights flickered. She cast an annoyed glance upwards before turning her attention back to him. “You were gone for so long, I called to check on you. They said you left at five, just like every day. That was two hours ago.” She walked over, holding his gaze. “Where were you?”

“I don’t know who you called, but they don’t know what they’re. . .” He trailed off, Julia still staring. He looked at the floor, silent and motionless. He moved his mouth, trying to find the words. He clenched and unclenched his fists, digging his nails into his skin. Finally, he sighed. “You remember the other day, when Austin came over?”

“You mean when he wanted you to do that stupid con job and I threw him out? Yeah, I remember that.” She watched him for a few seconds. “You did it, didn’t you?” He scratched the back of his neck. “I can’t believe it. After all the fuss I made, you just go behind my back and do it anyway. You--”

Jon held up his hand. “I know. But I had to. My job doesn’t pay all that much, and the kids need to eat.”

“They need you. Do you have any idea how much trouble you would be in if you got caught? What if you get thrown in jail? What happens to the kids then?”

Jon clenched his jaw. He tightened his fists, feeling something wet on the fingertips of his right hand. He opened his mouth to talk.

“Julia?” a soft voice said.

Standing at the edge of the room, holding her hands to her chest, was Jess. She look back and forth between her older siblings. Her eyes were wide, making her look like a deer caught in headlights.

“Can you tuck me in?” she asked.

Wordlessly, Julia stood and went to Jess. She put an arm around her shoulders and guided her to the girls’ room. Jess glanced back at Jon.

Now alone, Jon slouched and rubbed his eyes. The lights flickered, and he looked up. A month ago, two bulbs had burned out in the living room, and the final one was on its last legs. He always said he would change them out, but he never did. He could never scrounge up enough change to buy new bulbs. There was always food to buy, or ratty shoes to replace, or rent to pay. In the rare occurrence he did have a spare dollar or two, he put in a jar on top of the fridge. He called it the rainy-day jar. If he didn’t get new bulbs soon, though, they would be living in darkness.

He sat taller and look around at the apartment. Details to which he’d long grown accustomed now caught his eye. The wallpaper was horribly faded and ripped. The furniture was worn and had holes. Spots on the floor were stained from food spilled years ago.

Without thinking, he looked at the bag by his feet. He wondered if Austin would be willing to work with him again. It had sure seemed so earlier.

The floorboards creaked, and Jon looked forward. Julia walked out of the hallway and sat next to him on the couch. He watched her intently.

“It’s not just for them,” he said, almost too quietly to hear.

“What?”

He shifted so he was facing her. “The kids. I didn’t do it just for them. I did it for you, too.”

Her posture relaxed. She rested her head on his shoulder. Her body heat radiated onto him. It was a comforting feeling, reminding him of when they were young and inseparable. Before they had to grow up. People always commented on how close they were, calling them “strange” and “unnatural”. A couple times, their parents had talks with them. But the two never cared what anyone thought. They had each other, and that was enough.

“I just don’t want anything to happen,” she said. “For this family to work, we all need to be together. It took years for things to get back to normal after Dean left. And then--Mom.” Her voice caught on the last word. She coughed. “The kids just can’t handle anything else happening.”

Jon took a breath, held it for a few seconds, and exhaled. “I know.”

“They’re kids, they shouldn’t even have to think about these kinds of things. They should just be worried about having fun.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence. The never-ending sounds of traffic drifted in from the street. An ambulance siren blared, gradually growing louder.

“Don’t do it again.” Her breath was hot against his neck.

Jon didn’t respond. The siren slowly faded away.

“Please, don’t. It’s just not worth it.”

Finally, slowly, Jon nodded. “I won’t.”

“Good.”

For close to a minute, neither of them moved or said anything. They were content to just sit in each other’s company. Eventually, a something occurred to Jon.

“Hey, how did you call the supermarket?”

Julia’s lips twitched. “Hmm?”

“The phone hasn’t been working for a week. How did you call?”

Slowly, she smirked. “Gotcha.”

Jon smiled despite himself. His face felt warm. He looked up, at the single remaining light. It was so dull it didn’t even hurt his eyes to look at it.

The light flickered twice, then died.


© Copyright 2017 Clifford. All rights reserved.

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