This story was originally done for the contest on A Drop of Romeo. I have some pictures and info for the story up here on my blog: ( .com ). remove the spaces. Thanks for reading!
Money Doesn't Grow on Trees
I'd done this a zillion times before, but just like usual, my heartbeat thudded in my ears. I leaned my head against the warm window, listening to the familiar whirr as the subway sped along its track, and then double-checked to make sure everything was clear—the bearded man was still having an animated conversation on his cell phone, looking the other way. He thought I was asleep with my hood up over my eyes.
And his backpack was open. Seriously, who would be stupid enough to leave the front pocket of their bag open on a busy subway?
Well, it looked like I was just having a lucky day. It wasn't usually this easy. Slowly, eyeing the man out of the corner of my eye, I inched my arm closer to his bag, my breath hitching when I reached the zipper. After glancing over to make sure the man was still distracted with his phone, my fingers darted inside, pulled out the first thing they could find—a wad of dollar bills and assorted receipts—and stuffed it into my sweatshirt pocket.
My breathing returned to normal as I looked the other way and fidgeted with the sleeves of my dark gray sweatshirt, a hand-me-down from Abby, my oldest brother Jamie's girlfriend. Not only was it my favorite sweatshirt—it was made out of a much nicer material than any of my other clothes—it was also my lucky sweatshirt. I wore it any time I needed a little extra luck… which turned out to be pretty much every day.
Jamie had taught me how to pickpocket when I was seven years old—so it's been nine years. I was now sixteen. Sure it was illegal, but it was our way of life. Money had been an issue ever since our parents died when our house caught fire when I was four. We'd gone into hiding for a few years until Jamie turned eighteen, when he could legally adopt us. Our parents' monthly life insurance checks barely covered rent and electric bills; in order to pay for food and clothes and everything else, Jamie, my other brother, Teddy, and I had to work as many jobs as possible. But even so, that wasn't always enough.
And people were just so stupid. The tourists who left their purses on the seat while they got up to look at the maps, or the rich businessmen who let raw money dangle out of their pockets... If they didn't have enough common sense to watch their stuff, they were practically asking to have it taken. This man next to me was no exception—he was still obliviously chattering on his phone about the prospects of the World Series.
I sighed and turned to face the window. Of course, I couldn't see anything except for the occasional burst of orange light against the tunnel wall, but the cold window acted as a mirror, and I frowned at my faint reflection. Dark brown hair, almost black, tied into a braid under my gray hood. Pale skin, dark eyes, and a thin face. I blended in almost too well. I was made for this job.
At the next stop, a good half of the passengers got up to leave, including World Series Guy, and I glanced at the clock on the wall: it was almost time for dinner. That was going to have to be my last lift of the afternoon. I breathed a sigh of relief. Even though I'd been doing it for years, the little nagging voice had never left my head, always reminding me that I was stealing from people. I knew Jamie felt the same way—I could always tell from the way he rubbed his temples at the kitchen table after a long day of work and lifting. Teddy, on the other hand, seemed like he might actually find it fun in some strange, twisted way. But then again, Teddy was good at hiding his emotions if he wanted to, just to piss people off. No one really knew with him.
Waiting for my stop, I stared at the cheesy red white and blue campaign sign on the wall across from me. "Re-elect Andy Anderson for Governor!" It was almost like that man's parents knew he'd need a catchy name later on in life.
I'd heard lately that Andy Anderson had been accused of stealing money from the government. The only way he could possibly be re-elected would be on account of his good looks—next to his name was a headshot, showcasing his shiny blond hair and winning smile—or the fact that he was said to be "good for the social projects" or something. But really, he was a thief just like the rest of us.
I got off the subway four stops later, and I let out a deep sigh as I climbed up the dark stairwell into the blistering sunshine. The beginning of July had to be the hottest part of the summer in this city, and even though it was dinnertime, it wasn't nearly dark yet.
It was only three blocks from the subway station to our apartment building, but I was already sweating as I stepped over the last steam-emitting manhole near the concrete steps of our dark brick building. It was nothing to be proud of—our apartment only had a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, which meant that I shared a room with Teddy, who was a year older than me. My younger brother Lucky shared a room with Jamie, except when Jamie's girlfriend Abby would spend the night—then Lucky would all too willingly sleep in our room or on the couch.
Before running upstairs, I checked the mailbox marked "Harper" and went through the day's mail, throwing away the magazines full of expensive clothes and gadgets we couldn't afford. No paychecks today—I was expecting my check from the coffee shop any day now.
After I bounded up the stairwell and reached the second floor, I stopped dead. I could hear low yells from inside our apartment. My stomach growled in protest as I stopped outside the door to listen, but I wasn't going inside just yet. Teddy and Jamie were going at it again. Or rather, Teddy was the only one I could hear yelling—Jamie sounded like he was keeping his cool just fine. I sighed. Teddy had probably used up his paycheck on something stupid. Again. And even though Jamie was probably the first one to get angry, he was much better at controlling his temper than Teddy was.
The door slammed open in front of me as Teddy pulled his hood to hide his hair, which was dark, just like mine, only curly—and bolted down the hall, fuming, only sparing me one short glance. I rolled my eyes and reached for the door. Overdramatic.
"Violet, is that you?" Jamie called from the kitchen.
"Yeah," I said as I locked the door behind me and kicked my rubber flip flops onto the little doormat. I shook off my hood, tucking the loose strands of hair behind my ears, and padded into the kitchen, my sweaty feet sticking to the linoleum floor. Jamie hovered over the stove, boiling a pot of water. "What's his problem?" I asked, jerking my head towards the door.
Jamie sighed, his back still facing me. "Teddy almost got caught picking pockets at the pizza shop." The fact that he actually used the term 'pickpocketing' was a sign of how annoyed he was—we almost always referred to it as 'lifting.' I shrugged it off, though. The fight was between Jamie and Teddy.
"What an idiot!" I laughed. "What's this, like the fourth time he's almost been caught stealing at work?"
Jamie looked at me over his shoulder and rolled his eyes. "I know."
I let out a snort as he turned around. "Jamie, are you going for the homeless look or something?" I teased. It looked like he hadn't shaved in days.
"It's rugged!" he answered defensively, gingerly rubbing his stubbly chin, and then running his hand through his cropped hair. It was dark, nearly black, like the rest of my family's. You could instantly tell that we were family, just by looking at our hair.
"Yeah, well, if you don't shave soon, Abby's going to do it for you!" I traced a line around the edge of the table, walking around to Jamie's side of the kitchen.
Jamie wrinkled his nose and changed the subject before I could find something else to make fun of. "So, did you get anything good today?"
"Hmm…" I said, emptying my pockets onto the counter. I'd managed to get fifteen dollars from a teenage tourist's purse, thirty-two from a thirty-something businessman's pocket, and ten dollars from World Series man's backpack. "Fifty-seven dollars," I announced before placing my spoils in the wooden box we kept on the counter for our money pool.
"Nice!" Jamie said, giving me an approving nod. "What else you got there?" He nodded to the rest of what I'd taken from World Series Guy's bag. I went through it—just a bunch of receipts, a ticket stub from a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and a small shopping list consisting of mostly obscure fruits and vegetables. I threw away the receipts and shopping list and placed the ticket stub in the smaller box that sat next to the moneybox, which was reserved for random souvenirs we'd taken by mistake.
"What's for dinner?" I asked, changing the subject.
"Pasta," Jamie answered apologetically.
"Ugh," I groaned. "Pasta again?"
"Sorry kid, it was on sale."
"Well, make sure the sauce isn't too chunky," I muttered. "You know how I feel about chunky tomato sauce."
"Don't worry, I will never forget that," Jamie agreed, referring to the time I choked over a large hunk of tomato that was hiding in the sauce, spitting the mouthful of pasta all over the table. Not my fondest memory. Jamie reached into the cabinet. "I'll just add more ketchup!"
"Ew!" I gagged.
"Only joking, Vi." Jamie laughed. "I'm not that bad a cook." And he wasn't. But then again, he wasn't one for experimenting, either. Good old pasta and soup.
I grabbed a roll and headed back to my room to undress, wrap myself in a towel, and get into the shower. Teddy wasn't back yet when I was finished, so I shut the door to our little room and pulled on a ratty old pair of jean shorts, another black sweatshirt, and tied my hair into a loose bun. I stayed on my bed for a few minutes, picking at my dark green comforter and staring at the blank wall.
Teddy's side of the room and my side looked almost identical—living with all boys (only with Abby as an occasional exception) meant that I was basically a guy, just with an extra X chromosome and a slightly more feminine style of clothing. Both Teddy and I had matching dark green comforters, pillows, and rickety wooden dressers. The only difference was that I had a few ratty stuffed animals on my bed that I had apparently grabbed when escaping our burning house, while Teddy had tacked up a few posters of famous soccer players; he had wanted to play soccer for school, but couldn't because of his work schedule. Jamie had almost let him quit his job to play, but Teddy ended up feeling bad because he couldn't do his part to bring in the money. I swear, sometimes that boy drove me crazy. He was either all for the getting-jobs-and-saving-our-money thing or all against it and busting his money on little things. It changed depending on his mood.
"Dinner!" Jamie called from the kitchen, and I went to hang up my towel in the bathroom before going to the kitchen.
"Abby isn't coming?" I asked, noticing that Jamie had only set three places at the table, both of us knowing that Teddy wouldn't be back for dinner.
"She might stop by later," Jamie said, his mouth already full of pasta. "Lucky!" he called. "Dinner! Now!"
Lucky came running in, shaking out his long, straight hair. "Teddy's not back yet?" he asked, also noticing that there were only three spots at the table. "Shit, I bet he's hungry." He sat down and dug into his pasta.
"Language!" Jamie warned, but I laughed.
"You're no better than the rest of us," I muttered.
"Yeah well, we're not thirteen, like him," Jamie countered. "It'd be nice if this family could keep up some kind of decency…"
"That's already way gone," I chuckled, shoveling a double forkful of pasta into my mouth to prove the point. "Mmm…" I said with my mouth full before Lucky could come up with some smart-aleck response. "No chunks! Yay!" Lucky pretended to shield himself from the "flying chunks," and I smacked him lightly across the shoulder.
After dinner was cleaned up, Lucky turned on some sitcom and the three of us piled onto the old couch, mesmerized by the TV. A few minutes later the front door handle jiggled as Abby opened the door to let herself in. Jamie jumped up from the couch to greet her by the door, making it there before she could even poke her head in.
"Hey," he murmured, and Abby beamed at him, pushing up her sunglasses and sticking her blonde head through the crack in the door. She waved excitedly at Lucky and me before Jamie leaned down to kiss her, shutting the door behind them so they could kiss in private out in the hall.
I made a face at Lucky. "Come on, you're just jealous!" Lucky teased.
"I am not!" I said like I used to when we were younger, crossing my arms. But secretly, I think we were both a little jealous. I laughed nervously to fill the silence, and we both turned our attention back to the sitcom on TV.
"Dude, where are they?" Lucky asked a few minutes later.
"Young love…" I rolled my eyes.
"Yeah, but they've been in 'love' for years!" Lucky said, and narrowed his eyes.
"I dunno," I sighed. "I don't understand it any more than you do." Love was just something I'd never understand; all I had were my brothers. And although I loved them more than anyone else in the world, it was a different kind of love than Jamie and Abby.
The door opened and Abby yanked Jamie in by the arm. "Look what I've got!" she sang as she placed a white lunch bag on the sofa next to Lucky.
"Is it for me?" he asked excitedly.
"For both of you. Nothing much, just open it!" She could barely contain her excitement. Abby practically lived to bring us stuff.
Part of me groaned. At least it wasn't clothes or furniture or anything—Abby had brought over enough of those already this week. Sure we were poor, but we did have clothes, thanks. Lucky tore open the bag. "Whoa, cool!" He took out a giant black and white frosted cookie and passed one to me.
"Mmm…" I said after I bit into the frosting and passed the bag to Jamie.
Abby checked the time and yawned. "I have to go, guys. I'll see you tomorrow for longer, okay?" She pecked Jamie on the cheek and darted out the door.
The three of us ate our cookies in silence as we watched the sitcom. When Jamie finished his cookie, he glanced at Lucky and grabbed the remote. "I'm changing it to the baseball game."
Lucky groaned and got up. "Well, I'm leaving. You know I hate baseball. It's boring as shit!"
"Lucky! Watch your language!" Jamie chided automatically, flipping the channels.
Lucky stuck out his tongue. "Not like you guys are any better." He turned on his heel and marched down the hall.
That was weird. "Jamie, you don't even like baseball!" I whispered.
"Shh!" he hushed, looking behind him to make sure Lucky was out of earshot. "Listen, I want to talk to you."
I paled. This didn't sound good. Had he found out about me being late to work every day this week? Crap. It wasn't my fault I got… sidetracked on the subways. My heart sped up.
"It's nothing bad," Jamie reassured me, but then saw my expression. "Is there something I should be worried about?" he joked.
I shrugged, unable to come up with a witty comeback. "No, what's the something you're worried about?"
"Right," Jamie said."It's just… I've been thinking a lot lately."
"Really?" I joked, my breathing slowing back down. "Thinking? Wow…"
"Shut up," Jamie said, laughing, and then leaned his elbows on his knees. "Listen. I think she might be the one."
"No, her sister." Jamie rolled his eyes. "Yes, Abby!"
"So… you mean the one the one?" I clarified. "Like marriage?" Jamie nodded. I'd only heard about it in movies and books, and had certainly never experienced it myself, but Jamie and Abby had been going out for years. They acted like a married couple already anyway, and it was about time he realized it. "Too bad we can't afford a ring, she would love that!" I shook my head.
"Yeah, so you're a girl," Jamie said, looking at me.
"Yes." I nodded. "Thanks for noticing."
Jamie rolled his eyes. "What I meant was… what should I do?"
"Well, you've got to get her a ring," I said without thinking. "You can't propose without a ring!"
Jamie groaned. "Yeah, you're right." He put his head in his hands. "Maybe I shouldn't. She deserves someone who can at least pay for a ring, someone—"
"Jamie! Stop!" I interrupted. I didn't know what to say, but he needed to stop all this bashing. For Abby and him to break up over a stupid ring would just be plain… stupid.
"No, Violet." Jamie shook his head. "I've been saving up for a long time now. And I can still barely pay for just a quarter of a ring."
I sighed. Maybe I should start donating some of my money. It was a good cause, after all. Abby was like a best friend, older sister, and mother all wrapped into one.
Just as I was about to say something comforting, the doorknob rattled. It had to be Teddy. With a new idea, I leapt up, slipped on my shoes, and dragged Teddy back out the door by the sleeve as soon as he had poked his head in.
"What the hell are you doing?" he said, alarmed.
"Evening rush!" This was when all the late workers rode the subway home, and if we were ever going to be able to afford a ring sometime within the next five years, we had better get started now.
Teddy rolled his eyes. "You drive me crazy."
I snorted. "I wouldn't be talking." We walked the three blocks in silence, me thinking about Jamie and Abby, and Teddy thinking about who knows what.
The subway was a comfortable medium between crowded and empty. As we stepped on, Teddy and I separated, each heading towards an empty seat on opposite ends of the car. I chose a seat next to a man in a dark suit, who was nodding off to sleep. Perfect. I didn't look back at Teddy—I didn't want to attract any attention. After sitting still for a minute or two, I held my breath as I snaked my fingers into the man's pocket, careful not to touch his leg, and extracted a few dollar bills and small slips of paper, quickly slipping them into my shorts pocket. If the man hadn't chosen that moment to readjust his position, I would have returned the slips of paper. All we needed was the money. Papers wouldn't help us buy a ring.
At the next stop, I got up, appearing to stretch, but really turning around to make sure Teddy was watching as I exited the car. He appeared behind me a few seconds later, and we stood on the platform, waiting for the train to leave.
"Did you get anything?" I whispered.
I nodded as the air grew hotter and the next train slid into the station. "Let's go."
We worked three more train cars before the crowds started to thin out to an uncomfortable amount, and soon people would start to notice. So after the fourth car, Teddy and I sat in silence next to each other heading home, our pockets loaded, and our thoughts running wild.
Damn, I felt good. I whispered Jamie's dilemma to Teddy as we walked back home and ran up the stairs, and he wasn't surprised, either.
"We should start a new box," he whispered as we unlocked the door and headed for the kitchen.
"Good idea." I nodded.
"Hey, kids," Jamie said, appearing in the kitchen doorway. "What'd you get?"
"You first," I said to Teddy as he emptied his pockets.
"One, two, seven…twelve…"he counted under his breath. "Twenty-two," he announced. "Nothing else." He put the money in the wooden box and waited for me.
I placed my spoils on the counter. I could tell that I didn't have nearly as much as Teddy did. "Nine dollars," I muttered, after counting twice. Crap.
"What else?" Teddy asked, noticing the few assorted pieces of paper.
I unwrinkled receipts from the library, grocery store, and coffee shop, and then unfolded a fancy-looking note on thicker paper.
"You and your family have been cordially invited to the Governor's ball," I read, snorting. "Please present this invitation at the door for entry." I read off the address and date—tonight was Wednesday. The ball was Saturday night. Whoever I had taken this from was now missing their ticket.
"Violet, this is perfect!" Teddy hissed from behind me, quiet enough so Jamie wouldn't hear, and stared into my eyes, willing me to see what he was thinking. And after a few seconds, it became clear.
"Of course!" It was time to raise the stakes. The Harper orphans were crashing the ball.
Thanks for reading! I really want to hear your comments, and I'm always open to revision.