Edited with the help of reviewers.
Erika trudged slowly down the street feeling anything but happy, eyes were trained on the ground. Yesterday had been her fourteenth birthday, and it was sure to be remembered, but not in a good way.
Erika had her birthday party all planned out. She'd invite her friends over, and her parents had given her fifty dollars to blow on anything she wanted at the mall. Added to the one hundred fifty dollars her grandparents had given her, it was a pretty good haul. However, about half of that was missing when she got to the mall! Everyone suspected a pickpocket, but no one had any hope of getting the money back. Then the store her mom had ordered the cake from misspelled her name and made it a graduation cake instead of a birthday cake. The presents, thankfully, were still intact, but her dad had rented the wrong movie for her sleepover! She definitely didn't want to watch an education movie on herpes. Eww.
It didn't bother her friends, and everyone tried to help, but Erika still was disheartened from the previous day's events. So disheartened, in fact, that she walked straight into the person standing in front of her.
"Sorry," she said, looking up into the stranger's face. He had brown hair that looked like it hadn't been combed in a while and clear blue eyes. His clothes were casual: jeans and a T-shirt, and he had a backpack slung over his shoulder.
"No problem," he answered, grinning. His voice sounded cheerful and clear compared to Erika's. And then, "What's the matter?"
Erika hadn't noticed that his eyes had fallen on her face, which was once again trained towards the ground. She shrugged.
"Have you ever had one of those days where everything seems to go wrong?" she asked, looking up at him again.
"Yup," the boy answered, "Millions of them."
"Have any of those millions ever been on your birthday?"
Erika gave him an I-rest-my-case look and walked over to the bench next to the bus stop to wait for the next ride. She checked her watch to see that she had a good ten minutes until the bus showed up. To her surprise, the boy sat next to her.
"That bad, huh?" he asked without looking at her.
"It sure seems that way," was Erika's reply.
"I think I know something that'll help," he said. Erika raised an eyebrow as he rummaged through whatever junk must be in that backpack of his. She thought he looked pretty funny, and she almost smiled, too.
"Here it is!" he shouted, grinning again in his victory, dropping a brown, cylindrical object onto her lap. She looked at it, confused, and picked it up experimentally.
"You're welcome," said the boy, not giving an explanation, "I've gotta go," and with that he was off to wherever it was he planned to go. This caught Erika off guard.
"Hey!" she shouted after him, "Exactly what am I supposed to do with this?"
"Consider it a late birthday gift!" he called, turning around while running for a split second to answer, and then turning back again. And then he was gone.
Erika sighed. Why did some people get such a kick out of being so mysterious?
She looked at the package on her lap. She considered throwing it away and having nothing to do with it, since was a stranger, and an especially weird one, at that. But even so, curiosity held her back. She shook the present to find that it was pretty well held together and it was pretty light in weight, and it wasn't that long. Before she could open it, the bus arrived.
Erika didn't tell anybody about the present from the stranger that day at school. It didn't feel right to talk about it, at least not until she knew for sure what was in it, and she was not going to open it with all those eyes to see. She planned on waiting until after school. That day seemed to go particularly slow, as if it were purposely tormenting her, but eventually it passed, and she was home soon enough.
As soon as she shut the door to her house, Erika planned on sprinting upstairs, her patience stretched to the limit. She needed to find out what was in that package, now. But her mom stopped her.
"Surprise!" said her mother, holding a cardboard box in front of Erika's open-mouthed face, "Sweetie, I know you had a rough time of it yesterday, so I bought you something to make up for it: a new pair of shoes!"
"Thanks, Mom," she said honestly, taking the box from her mom's hands and opening it. She smiled, even if her mom had bought them, she had to admit they were a pretty nice pair of shoes. But she was still anxious. "I've got homework!" she shouted as she ran up the steps to her room. She dug through her bags until she found what she was looking for. She tore off the brown paper to see…
Erika stared. She examined the object from all angles, but sure enough, there it was, a perfectly normal telescope. She pulled at both ends to find that it was the kind that you could push in for portable usage, and it was actually quite long at full length. She wondered how this was supposed to cheer her up after yesterday, the yesterday she had almost forgotten in eagerness to open this thing. There didn't seem to be anything special about it. She lay down on her bed and peered out her window. Putting the telescope to her eye, she stared into it for a few moments, and then pulled it down, her eyes wide. Then she put it too her eye again, just to confirm that what she had seen was really there.
Desert sands rolled across her vision, shifting with the prevailing winds, a clear blue sky allowing the sun to dye the sand a golden brown. Silent and lonely they seemed to Erika, looking but not hearing.
She removed the telescope from her eye and blinked. She turned the telescope to the other end and looked into the lens, expecting to see a hidden camera or something of the sort. But through the glass she could only see through the instrument to the lens she had looked through earlier. Frowning, she turned the telescope and looked again.
This time the dusty desert was gone. It was replaced with a different kind of desert. A snow desert. The wind howled as it carried ice and snow, barking dogs dragging their musher through the tundra. She removed the telescope again, not sure what to think, and went outside. She stepped into the cool evening air and sat down on the front porch, thinking. Slowly, she looked into the strange device again.
This time she saw a blob of brown. She pulled the telescope in to find that it was indeed a mass of brown fur, a mass of brown kangaroo fur. The kangaroo leaped and bounded across the outback, her and her joey not sniffing the air.
She turned to a different direction and this time she saw kids playing soccer barefoot, kicking the ball with more accuracy than she had managed in gym class last semester.
She saw someone flying a kite in a windy city and several people dozing on a beach. She saw the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower all in the same minute. She saw a high-tech building in what looked like Japan, and a place where everybody seemed to be riding a bike.
She grinned. This was awesome. Maybe this had been a good gift, after all. She had to thank what's-his-name when she saw him again. But how did it work? She looked at it for a while before deciding that staring at it wasn't going to answer any of her questions. And besides, she was enjoying herself. Would discovering how it worked ruin the magic? Maybe it was better not to know.
From that day on, Erika took her telescope everywhere with her. It could easily fit into a jacket pocket or a purse, so she was good to go. She looked into it whenever possible and saw many sights in a few minutes most wouldn't get to see in a lifetime. And she loved it, but something began to bother here as she stared into her object day after day.
She wasn't there. She could see everything as if it were right in front of her, but she couldn't do anything. She was just watching from the sidelines, completely helpless.
And she began to feel guilty.
She felt guilty because she was just watching. Watching famished children in a foreign country didn't get them fed. Watching someone get hurt wasn't helping him or her. She couldn't do anything. She could just watch. It was driving her mad.
About two weeks after first acquiring the telescope, she walked into the very mall where her birthday money had been stolen and spied someone very familiar.
"You!" she excalimed, pointing at the brown-haired kid that had first given her the telescope. He was sitting at a table at the food court, looking bored, and he turned at the sound of Erika's voice.
"You," he replied in return, almost making it a question as he looked at her. Erika slid into the seat across from him and gave him an all-business look.
"This," she said, giving him a straight face and pulling the telescope out of her pocket and showing it to him.
"That," he replied in the same questioning, expectant tone as before.
"What is it?" Erika blurted.
"A telescope," he replied.
"Yes, but… you do know what it does! You do! Why else would you have given it to me?" Erika demanded, glaring.
"It shows you thing that are far away. That's what telescopes do." The boy was speaking slower now, as if Erika was being stupid and he needed to talk down to her.
"You know what I mean!" said Erika, eyes flashing.
Erika quieted down after seeing how serious he was.
"It's amazing," she said softly.
"Tell me about it," said the boy.
"I saw places all over the world…"
"Really?" the stranger asked as if she had just stated that they had nice weather today, "I saw someone get mugged once."
"And you couldn't do anything about it," Erika said, looking down, understanding.
"And I couldn't do anything about it," he confirmed.
"Don't get me wrong, I love it," she started, "but this thing is going to drive me up a wall!" And with that she handed the telescope back to him. He gave her a strange look.
"What?" he asked.
"Take it back," she said, "it's yours, and I'm going mad with guilt, here!"
"It's not mine, it's yours," the boy stated, looking confused, "I gave it to you as a birthday present, remember? A late birthday present, but still."
"How does it work?" asked Erika, "Is it magic?" The boy chuckled.
"You do know?" she asked.
"Maybe," he said with a sly grin, "Maybe not. You'll have to figure that one out for yourself." Erika set the telescope down on the table and just stared at it.
"It's yours," the stranger said with a shrug, "so do what you want with it."
"Yeah, but weren't you listening when I talked about my guilt problem?" Erika talked faster as the boy stood, but he came over next to her.
"You might want to try looking at objects that are a bit closer," he said simply, pushing in the telescope to make it smaller, and then he walked away, leaving Erika alone and confused. She decided to look in the telescope again.
This was weird. She saw a sight she recognized. It was the ladies restroom in this mall, a place she often visited. There was a girl there. She was crouched in one of the stalls, but she wasn't using the bathroom. Erika couldn't see her face. She removed the telescope. Well, time to see if this thing was for real, and she put the telescope back in her pocket. As she got up, a young man bumped into her and apologized.
"It's fine," she said, not paying attention, wanting to get to the restrooms as fast as possible.
When she got to the restroom, she walked down the hall looking for feet under the stall walls. It wasn't hard to find the girl she had seen. She knocked on the stall door. The girl didn't move.
"Hello?" asked Erika. There was still no answer. She got on her stomach and looked under the door to find herself face to face with the girl. She had blonde hair and scared eyes that were red from crying.
"Um, hi?" Erika asked cautiously, not sure what to say. The girl didn't move.
"Can we talk?" Still nothing.
"Look, you can't stay there forever!" At that, the girl slowly rose to her feet and unlocked the door.
She was short, Erika noticed, but she didn't look younger than Erika. It looked like she had been wearing make-up that wasn't waterproof, for it was running down her cheeks.
"I'm Erika," Erika said, offering the other girl her hand. The girl shook it, staring wide-eyed. After a few seconds she remembered proper manners.
"I'm Ashley," she said.
"You okay?" asked Erika. Ashley sighed.
"Have you ever had one of those days where nothing seems to go right?"
"Yeah," said Erika, and she couldn't help smiling, "Millions of them." With that, Erika knew what she wanted to do. Ashley would thank her in the long run. Too bad she hadn't thought to wrap it up, like what's-his-name did. She reached for the telescope in her bag…
Only to find that it wasn't there. Erika gasped as she remembered the man that had bumped into her. Ashley tilted her head, frowning.
"It's gone!" Erika exclaimed, unwilling to believe the words even as she said them. She dug at the bottom of the bag and felt her pockets.
"What is it?" asked Ashley again. Erika stopped her enthusiastic search and looked at Ashley. The telescope was gone; she still couldn't believe it. She couldn't make Ashley feel better. She couldn't pass it on again. The cycle was broken, and it was all her fault. She should've known that guy was a pickpocket!
"Uh, okay, Erika," Ashley said, "I should probably be getting home now…"
"Wait," said Erika quickly, pulling her self off the ground where she had been looking. Ashley waited for a response. Erika stuttered.
"Do you have a ride?" she asked. "My mom's picking me up in like, five minutes, and we could take you home if you wanted." Ashley brightened.
"Um, okay," she said, a small smile appearing on her face. "Wait…" she walked over to the mirror and looked at her miserable figure, trying to wipe the rest of her make-up off.
"It's okay," said Erika gently, "I've got this weird make-up removal thing at home… Well, technically it's my mom's but…" She found herself smiling. Ashley was smiling too.
"All right then," said the blonde, walking towards the exit. Erika followed suit, lost in thought.
Maybe Ashley didn't need a telescope that could see places thousands of miles away.
In city alley the young man admired his handy work. He counted the cash he had successfully stolen and looked over various other objects, the strangest of which was a telescope. What the hell was he supposed to do with a telescope? The thing probably didn't work, anyway…