“Columbus was an ass,” Marcus declared, hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, his long legs bent around the rusting metal. “He didn’t discover America, he didn’t prove the world was round – he did nothing but be a giant –“
“Why do you care about this now?” I cut him off from my perch on the nearby bench. “You didn’t when Ms. Clark was explaining it in class. From what I remember, you were too busy snoring.”
He frowned, still hanging. I didn’t know how he could do that - I hated the feeling of pressure in my head that came from being upside-down for any length of time. That, and I was too scared of falling on my head. “I tuned out after Magellan. Besides, she was teaching the biased history. The ‘Columbus-was-a-bloody-saint version’. Didn’t even mention that he was a slave trader. Or that he’d massacred a bunch of natives and fed them to his dogs.”
“How could you possibly know what she said? You were asleep!”
“Only because I already knew what she was going to say. I’m right, aren’t I?”
I sighed. “As always.” I watched at he swung back and forth on the bar, eventually releasing his grip at the peak to twist and land upright again. His feet hit the ground with a crunch, sending up a puff of sand so old it was practically dust. As gravity took ahold of his blond bangs, they fell back across his eyes. He impatiently brushed them out of the way.
“Nice flip,” I said.
Marcus shot me a cocky grin, and then pulled himself up onto the bars again. While he was distracted, I slipped my hand into the front pocket of his backpack, fishing for the small wallet I knew he kept there. In an instant, I’d palmed it, and slipped it into a crevasse of my oversized jacket.
He managed to pull his lanky legs onto the structure, kneeling on the first rung. Grinning down at me, he said, “Think I can do a backflip, Janet?”
I looked from him to the cold, hard ground and shivered. “Don’t you dare.” As I spoke, I slid open the zipper on his wallet, hand still hidden, and rummaged around the change section. My fingers found the right-sized coin and slid it out, then zipped the opening shut again.
“Scaredy cat,” he chastised, but he was still smiling. He hung himself back upside down again, his hair pointing at the ground in spikes.
“I’m not scared. I just don’t take unnecessary risks,” I said, leaning over and fiddling with my own bag to distract him from what I was really doing – putting his wallet back. I didn’t worry too much about him noticing. He never did, and I’d been stealing from him for years.
Marcus laughed. “For you, everything is an unnecessary risk. Anyway…” He started to swing again. “Do you agree?”
“That Columbus was a terrible person? Yeah. But weren’t most explorers?”
“Most explorers don’t have holidays specifically for them.” Marcus swung faster, and it was making me dizzy. “I just don’t get why we should celebrate a murderous piece of scum at the same level that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, or the independence of our country.”
“We don’t, though. Don’t a lot of states not even celebrate it at all anymore?”
“Yeah, but it’s still a federal holiday. Our state still celebrates it. Even my animal shelter celebrates it!”
I leaned back on the bench, the cold of the metal seeping through my jacket.. “Oh, so that’s what this is about.” Grey clouds had rolled in overhead, blotting out the sun, and I eyed them balefully.
He stopped swinging, pulled himself back onto the bar and turned around to face me. While sitting on the supporting beam, he said, “Jan, they’re running an event tomorrow, and they want me to participate. I swear, they take every excuse of fundraise – but we really do need the money, even if it means spending a whole day praising the bastard.” His voice took on a pleading tone. “Can you help me? If you come, it won’t be half as bad –“
“Can’t. My mom’s taking me shopping.” I’d tried to worm my way out of it before, but she was very persistent. Besides, I really did need new school uniforms. Being the only kid in the ninth grade with clothes full of holes wasn’t doing wonders for my already-nonexistent social life. “I don’t think she’ll take ‘saving Marcus, again’ as an excuse.”
He sighed theatrically. “ I suppose I’ll have to resign myself to my fate.” He collapsed over backwards. I gasped before he caught himself, grabbing the other bar and pulling himself back up.
There was a moment of silence, during which I looked back up at the sky. “I think we should head back. It looks like rain.”
“It’s Washington. It always looks like rain,” he quipped, but he glanced up too.
“Yeah, but now it looks especially like it, and my mother’ll kill me if I catch another cold.” I stuck my hands in my pockets again, rubbing the quarter I’d stolen between my thumb and curled forefinger.
“Being wet doesn’t cause colds. That’s another myth.” Despite his protests, he jumped down, grabbing his backpack.
“It does weaken your immune system, which you’d know if you didn’t sleep though biology too.” I stood, my head barely reaching his shoulder. He was tall, which made me look even shorter than I actually was. I picked up my backpack, slung it across my shoulder, and we started for home.
For a while I was occupied with avoiding the nettles that reached their way across the path, so I didn’t talk, but that didn’t stop Marcus. He chatted on about the school, then more about Columbus Day. We had to stop a few times so I could untangle his bag from the blackberry brambles that clawed at the netting, but that was usual. I was just glad he’d remembered to wear long pants for once – the cold never seemed to bother him, but he certainly complained about nettle stings.
Next, we passed the other park. It was near abandoned, which was unusual – it was almost always packed, full of screaming children, their parents, and other kids from our school, who mainly went there to hang with friends, drink, or both.
Marcus and I used to go there, too. He didn’t mind the crowds, but he knew I did, which is why we walked the extra distance to the other park- our hidden paradise of corroding monkey bars and overgrown swing sets, tucked into the woods. I never told him that it wasn’t the people I didn’t like being around – it was their wallets.
The temptation was all around me. It was in the backpacks at school, full of lunch money and left uncaringly in corners, and in the purses carried by women on the streets. It was in coat pockets, in the clink of loose change as people walked by, and even in the tip boxes at shops. I knew it was wrong. I just couldn’t help myself.
We stepped out onto the road, and I forced my attention back to the present. There wasn’t any sidewalk, so I always had to watch for oncoming cars. I also had to watch out for Marcus, as I’d long ago realized I was the only thing that prevented him from walking into traffic.
He was still talking. Now, it was about the fundraiser his shelter was doing. That was another reason I couldn’t go – being around jars of coins made me antsy, and I couldn’t allow myself to steal from a charity.
We stopped at the corner and he turned to me. “You don’t happen to have any money to donate, do you? Because if I bring in enough cash, they might let skip out early.”
I laughed. “Your charity sounds like a prison.”
“It is! Well, no, not really.” He looked it me pleadingly. “I usually love it. I just really hate Columbus Day -“
“Believe me, I can tell.”
“Please, Janet? Just a dollar or two?”
I laughed again. “Sorry. I’m totally broke.” That wasn’t exactly true, but I couldn’t hand over the money I had. Not even to a non-profit.
It was worse before I taught myself to only steal quarters. Before, I would take whole wallets, and cry when I got home and found out how much I’d taken. I’d never spend it, but I could never get rid of it, either. It just sat in my room, making me feel proud and guilty at the same time. At least now I could hide my jars of quarters in my closet and forget about them. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone would miss a quarter.
He was still looking at me, so I shook my head and reiterated. “I don’t have any money, Marcus. Not a cent.”
He seemed to slump, dejected, but then he perked up. “Hey, I forgot to ask – can I hang out at your house for a while? Dad’s girlfriend is over and…” He made a face.
“Sure, no problem.” Marcus had been coming over to my house almost every other day since we were in elementary, so this wasn’t new. I didn’t even bother asking my mom anymore.
As we approached my house, I noticed my mother’s car in the driveway and frowned. She wasn’t usually home at this time. If she was, it meant that she came home early, or had the day off. Oh no. I picked up my pace, and Marcus asked me what was wrong. I didn’t answer.
My mother found cleaning “relaxing”, so whenever she had a time, she scrubbed the whole house, top to bottom. To my constant horror, that included my room, and my closet. Usually, I had a few hour warning, but I hadn’t realized that she might have damn Columbus Day off.
When I pushed the front door open, my fears were confirmed by the scent of cleaning fluid. I went straight for my room, as I always did, Marcus on my heels, looking a bit confused. As soon as my foot hit the stairs, they creaked, and my mom called out “Janet? That you?”
I froze, debating whether or not to respond. Finally, “Yeah, it’s me, and Marcus. What is it?”
“Can you come here for a second?” Her voice echoed out of the living room.
I didn’t answer, unsure of how to respond. If she had gone into my closet, she could’ve found everything. Was it too late to run away?
“What’s going on?” Marcus whispered, the tone of his voice still joking, with just a trace of concern.
“Nothing,” I whispered back, forcing myself to move. It could just be nothing, right? This could be about something totally different. I could be completely overreacting. I rubbed the coin in my pocket so harm my fingertips burned.
I turned the corner, and there was my mother, standing a few feet away from the couch as if she had just stood up, her arms crossed over her chest. Her face wore a neutral expression, thinly layered over one of worry and anger. For a moment, that was all I could see. Then, she took a few steps to the side, and I found myself once again unable to move.
Sitting on the coffee table were my quarters, the eight jars lined up neatly beside each other, sparkling in a patch of afternoon sun. Next to them, the shoebox I used to store the few wallets I’d stolen sat, open.
“What’s this?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. Then, I managed to force out, “They’re mine.”
She laughed weakly. “I assumed that when I found them in your room, but…” She crossed picked up one of the wallets and opened it. The face on the ID, an elderly man, frowned out at me. “Now I’m not so sure.”
I decided to go with another tactic. “You shouldn’t have been in my room –“
“Don’t even give me that!” Her voice cracked, with anger or stress I couldn’t tell. I became painfully aware of Marcus standing next to me. “You know, it’s hard enough with your father gone without me having to worry about you stealing –“
“I’m not a thief, Mom!” Though that was exactly what I was. I was a thief and a liar and a terrible person. Oh my god. My mom had always been so proud of me and my “perfect” behavior, and I took that away from her. And what was Marcus going to think?
I only realized I was shaking when he placed a hand on my shoulder. “She’s telling the truth,” he said. “Those quarters aren’t stolen.” What?
My mother echoed my sentiment. “What do you mean?”
“She’s helping me raise money for the shelter I work at. I came over today to pick them up.” He squeezed my shoulder. “It really was nice of her to pick them up.”
I blinked, stunned. He was covering for me? Why? My mom looked as stunned as I was, but she seemed to relax, her arms releasing from their vise-like position. “What about the wallets?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus said, “but I’m sure she’s got a good reason. Right, Jan?” He looked at me, urging me to say something.
“They’re for a, um, a social studies thing.” I realized how stupid that sounded, but I pressed on. “We have to see what we can find out, figure about people from their possessions? Like modern-day archeologists? I chose wallets. They’re from…they’re donated.”
“Donated?” She still looked skeptical. “Who donates ID’s? And credit cards?”
“They’re old.” I hoped she hadn’t looked too closely. “Unused. Throwaways. Fakes.”
She shifted from foot to foot. I could tell she wanted to believe me, and I hated using that against her. I just needed this to work.
“That was smart, Jan.” Marcus said, turning to me. “I chose to use backpacks, but wallets makes more sense. And seems simpler.” He laughed, and I tried to laugh along. My mom smiled slightly.
My strategy was working, so why did I feel so terrible? I hoped my mom didn’t notice the tears welling in my eyes. “Can we go now, Mom? Marcus and I have stuff to do.”
She nodded, and Marcus slipped out of the room. As I left, I grabbed the shoebox, carefully checking that all the wallets were in their proper places before putting the lid back on so I wouldn’t have look at them anymore.
Once we were out of sight, I let out a deep breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding. She didn’t know, and she would never have to. My body relaxed, and my fingers uncurled from around the coin I still carried. I blinked away the tears.
Then, I saw Marcus. He was looking at me with a strange expression, half confused and half concerned. “What the hell’s going on, Janet?”
Oh my god. What was I going to say?