This is my entry for the Review Game's September Writing Challenge Contest. The prompt is a picture, so you'll have to go to the RG's WCC thread to see it.
No moon lit the night, leaving the stars to struggle to illuminate the sky. But no city can ever be completely dark, so a collection of neon signs, gas stations, and twenty-four hour fast food restaurants cast their glow on a set of run down apartment buildings lounging on the other side of the street.
Complete with fire escapes, litter-ridden alleys, and graffiti masterpieces painted on the walls, the brick complex could've belonged to any city. Thanks to the midnight curfew, all the lights were off. Inside one of the apartments, it was only the frustrated stars, the city's excess, and a small reading lamp that lit Stephanie's desk.
She scowled at the small, intricate mechanical parts scattered in front of her.
"Come on," she hissed at the parts as if they were disobedient children. She ran her fingers through her messy brown hair, and it tangled around her fingers, begging to be brushed. But Stephanie refused to leave until she was finished. For the third time that night, she picked up her small screwdriver and started to put the parts together with equally small screws. In a few minutes, she had the skeleton of a digital watch in her hand, but after sifting through the silver clockwork parts, she threw her hands up in frustration.
"Damnit!" she snapped, but the shout died halfway out her mouth as she remembered that she didn't want to wake her parents. They'd always been tolerant of her obsession with mechanics, but they'd forbidden her using it as a way to make money.
"He's going to be so pissed." Stephanie slouched in her chair, tiredness clouding her thoughts.
As if on cue, her cell phone vibrated. She winced, knowing who was calling before she even looked at the screen. Sighing, she pulled out the phone and read the name of the sender of the text: Todd.
u said u wld call me when u were done
since i haven't called you doesn't it figure that i'm not done? Stephanie texted back.
i paid in advance so u wld get it done faster, u kno, not so u could enjoy my cash while u kick back and relax
"That's not the point!" Stephanie said aloud, glancing down at her new boots and bit her lip. Damn fashion sense, making her feel guilty.
i think i lost a piece
u what? Steph, if my dad finds out i broke that thing, he'll kill me!
i know, i know
Stephanie did know, and a bit more than Todd thought. Why else would she have broken Todd's watch while he was asleep in math class, if not so she could make him pay extra in advance so she would fix it before his dad figured he had swiped it?
find the piece, then!
i think i already have, by the window
A lie to get him to stop complaining. Stephanie ruffled through a few sheets sitting on the other side of the desk with her free hand, looking in vain.
i'm going to expect a refund if u don't get it done
no refunds. business is business, after all
get it done, steph
look, i'll have it for u 2morrow morning, all right? Stop txting me or i won't be able to work
"Doesn't know when to shut up," she muttered, rolling her eyes. "Still, I'd better find it." She had walked near the window with the watch earlier, so it seemed as good a place to start as any. With a groan unique to exhausted egotistical people forced to do something they think is beneath them, she stood and strode to the dirt-streaked piece of glass, phone still in her hand.
The window was open, allowing the occasional rush of a car or whistle of a train to leak into the apartment. Although the window was in much need of cleaning, it let in enough of the light from the Wendy's across the street for Stephanie to see the floor beneath it. Setting her phone on the windowsill, she knelt down and ran her fingers along the floor. Satisfied that nothing was there, she put her hand on the windowsill to pull herself up, and knocked her phone off the ledge.
"Shit!" She kicked the wall in frustration, watching as her cell bounced off the fire escape and smashed onto the sidewalk below. Then she froze, remembering her sleeping parents. Silence filled the house for several moments, but Stephanie was still careful to be as quiet as possible as she put her foot, along with her new boot, out the window and climbed onto the fire escape. Her apartment was only on the second story. The phone could be salvageable.
A wind twisted and tangled her already twisted and tangled hair, but it was a gentle, warm wind, so Stephanie felt only a little uncomfortable in her loose white shirt and skinny jeans. She wrapped her purple scarf tighter around her neck and went down the fire escape ladder.
Three floors lower, she lowered the last fire escape ladder and then completed her journey to the ground, dropping the last two feet. Garbage bags lined the wall below a spray painted word that could've been "fuck" or "fried" or "fame". Other than that, scattered cloth and dirt were the wall's only companions. Glancing around, her fists clenched when she didn't see her phone.
"Why? Just, why? Damn it all!" Stephanie rubbed her temples, her anger fading into annoyance, and then simply tiredness.
"Looking for these?" Near the wall, a pile of cloth, or what Stephanie had thought was a pile of cloth, stood up.
"Hey!" Stephanie whirled to face the pile of cloth, ready to run across the street to the safety of Wendy's.
"Calm down, will you? Geez, you try to help someone…" The homeless man, dressed in layers of patchwork and newspaper, snorted. He could've rolled his eyes, but his face wasn't visible beneath a hood, a hat, and a scarf wrapped around it. In his outstretched palm, he held Stephanie's phone, or what had once been her phone. It was broken into several parts.
"Oh." Stephanie blinked, but then realized she must look like an idiot tense and staring like that. She straightened. "You found my phone."
"Wasn't hard. It fell right into my lap."
"Thank you," she said stiffly, holding out her hand.
"Those are some nice boots you have there," the stranger said, not making a move to give Stephanie her phone. "Are they new?" Caught off guard, Stephanie glanced at her feet.
"Yes," she said slowly, eyes narrowing as, with the help of her practiced swindler's sense, she figured out what he meant.
"I did catch your phone for you." The stranger shrugged.
"Just so you could make a buck by pawning it off!" Stephanie snarled.
"No need to get so offended. I bet you have a million pairs just like them upstairs." The stranger put his free hand on his hip.
"That's not the point!" If this had been the first misfortune of the night, Stephanie might've screamed, but she was tired of being upset. Her shout ended up sounding whiny.
"The point is that, yes, I did plan to make some cash off of this, but I figure I can make just as much off of those boots, so I'm being nice and offering a trade, see?" The stranger, looked intently at Stephanie, as if trying to revive her from her wide-eyed stupor. "Jesus, it's not the end of the world! Look, I'll even throw in a bonus and fix it for you."
Stephanie's mouth dropped as she watched the stranger lift a small piece and snap it into its place in the shell of the phone. Sliding, clicking, and even, in one instance, screwing a tiny bolt in with his little finger, the stranger's deft fingers repaired Stephanie's phone.
"Now stop looking so put out. You're not the one living on a sidewalk." The stranger snapped the plastic back of the phone into place and held the power button. In a few seconds, the screen lit up as the Verizon logo flickered across, soon to be replaced with the home screen. "See? Good as new."
"I thought you needed a special screwdriver to fix those." Stephanie, confronted with a master of her trade, could think of nothing else to say. All of her exasperation and contempt had drained as she had watched the stranger work his magic.
"Takes a lot practice." Stephanie swore she saw the stranger wink. "Now do I know how to make a good deal, or don't I?"
"You, I suppose." Despite herself, Stephanie felt a smile creeping across her face. The stranger's gung-ho attitude was almost comical, if you looked at in a certain light. That is, in the light of the open-all-night Wendy's across the street.
"Why the fuck not?" Stephanie sat on the cracked concrete and yanked her boots off. Standing, she tossed them to the stranger.
"That's the sport, kid." The stranger caught Stephanie's boots and handed her the fixed phone.
"I had to pay seventy bucks for those. Don't you dare let them go for less." Stephanie took her phone from the stranger, her fingers tracing the coarse leather of his glove.
"Oh, don't worry about that. I'll probably get a good deal more than seventy." The stranger examined his prize appreciatively, turning the boots around in his hands.
"Good luck, then." Stephanie turn to go back to the fire escape.
"Hey, kid," the stranger called, and Stephanie stopped and faced him. He reached into one of his many pockets and fumbled around. Not finding what he wanted, he reached into another pocket.
"Wait a second… aha!" After further searching, the stranger pulled something tiny out of one of his pockets.
"Here," he said, flicking the object to Stephanie. Catching the whistling object as it soared, Stephanie looked at the stranger's gift. It was the missing piece to Todd's watch.
"You dropped that a few hours ago," the stranger cut her off.
"What? This one's a freebie? You don't want my scarf or anything? What happened to business is business?" Surprised, Stephanie spread her arms and looked from side to side with an ironic smile.
"And look where that motto got me!" The stranger laughed so sharply it was almost a bark and spread his arms, making his rag tag outfit seem even shabbier. Before she could reply, the stranger turned and started to walk away, waving off her attempts to speak. Before he rounded a corner leading to an alley so dark that not even the faint stars or flickering streetlights could erase the shadows, he called over his shoulder:
"Don't thank me, kid. It's strictly business, after all!"