Tommy peeked around the corner. The morning was getting late and only a few scattered people were walking to and from the shops up and down the street. Most paid no attention to the little boy peeking around the edge of the pawn shop, though one lady did turn back, viewing him with furrowed brow before shaking her head and walking on.
Tommy watched her pass the newspaper stand and walk three doors down. She entered under a sign that read ‘Katherine’s Kollectibles.’ He ducked back behind the corner and looked down at his feet. His breathing was fast and his hands slick with a thin layer of sweat. Deep breath in, he took another look around the corner.
The newsstand had been there for a long time, Tommy knew. Its cart-like design and fold-down wooden awnings had been on this corner since his own father had been a child. He could see rows of magazines and papers neatly arranged and labeled. From his corner he saw labels that read political, outdoors, fashion, sportsman, and on the top shelf, mens. Other labels were masked from his view by thin buckets that contained flowers. Most were single roses, but a few held bouquets of various types. Tommy knew the other side had those stupid teen magazines that littered his sister’s floor, and of course, a stack of the daily newspaper.
He had his target, now he just had to wait until the old man was distracted. He had heard the stories of what happened to kids caught stealing from his paper stand. He could not wait too long. This was his third attempt, he had been too scared and instead ran away without what he needed. Today was her last day. She would be gone tomorrow, so it had to be today; this was his last chance.
He watched for a minute longer, examining the old man as he handed out change to a guy in brown slacks. He wore a light coat, his gray stringy hair stuck out in tufts from under the fisherman style hat he had worn for years. The brim of the hat shadowed his upper face and brow, making the eye-patch he wore even more sinister. The kids at school made pirate jokes about him, and there were stories whispered about how he lost his eye. Tommy only believed half of them.
He moved back, fully behind the corner again. He looked down at his feet and saw the laces dangle, their knot loose, on his left foot. He knelt down and performed the loop and bunny his father taught him long ago. He stood and felt inside his coat. There it was, safe and sound. The folded piece of paper tucked into the inside pocket that made the jacket so cool he had begged his mother relentlessly for it. Shoes tied, jacket straight, paper tucked safely away, he was ready… deep breath.
He looked once before moving and saw a lady flipping through the magazines next to the label that read ‘Home and Garden’ before she turned to the old man. She slid one out from the rack. The one-eyed devil now had his back to him. Tommy knew this was his moment.
He put one foot in front of the other, trying to walk and not run. He had to move fast, but not too fast. There, up high, on the end corner. The flower buckets up high had the single roses. That’s what he needed. Just one, he only needed one. His hand reached out and up. Tommy had not realized just how tall the newspaper stand was; he was going to have to jump to grab it. Jump and run. He felt his legs tighten. His knees flexed. He sprang forth.
He went backward. Pulled by the collar of his really cool jacket. His body ended up two feet back, still on his feet, but no longer in control of where they could go. The old man had him. He bent down to bring his wrinkled face with the hint of gray stubble and coffee on his breath only inches from Tommy’s face.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Tommy’s throat closed, his voice lost somewhere down low in his gut, sitting next to his heart. This couldn’t be happening. He had planned so carefully. She would be gone tomorrow. He had to get it today. Now she would never now. He would never make it to her.
“I said, what do you think you’re doing? You better talk boy!” The patch over his missing eye seemed to move in tandem with his chin as he spoke. “Can’t talk, eh? That’s okay, I am sure your parents will have plenty to say when they hear you were trying to steal those magazines.” The old man pointed to the top shelf, just inches from the top row of flowers. Tommy had not even thought about them. There, on the top shelf, the girly magazines like the one David Duester had shown everyone in the boys room at school. He had gotten away with stealing it from the newsstand. It had been the spark that ignited the courage in Tommy that he could do it.
“Wha… No, sir. No. I wasn’t tryin’ to…”
“Don’t lie to me son. That’s the problem with you kids. Think you can lie your way out of everything.”
“No. I mean… I wasn’t trying to take that. I mean…”
“Tell me the truth. Now boy.”
“I was trying to steal, but not that… I was …I was trying to get one of those.” Tommy raised his finger pointing to the single roses wrapped in the clear bouquet plastic. His arm fully extended made the coat tighten around his shoulders and neck. The old man still had his collar tight.
“Do you expect me to believe that?”
“No sir. I mean, yes, I mean… I wasn’t stealing the girly magazines.”
The old man stared at him. Tommy thought for sure he would be an old man like him before his collar would be released. What was he going to tell his mother? It didn’t matter. The most important thing was that he failed, and Emily was leaving tomorrow.
“Why?” Tommy did not understand the question.
“Tell me why. Why were you taking a flower.”
“I…’cause I…” Tommy couldn’t find any words to explain. How would this old man understand?
“Was it for your mom?”
“Ah. Well we have a situation here, don’t we?” The old man smiled. Tommy was sure the missing eye was boring through and eating his insides. He looked at the old man, his face contorting into a question. The old man chuckled, and Tommy swallowed, hard.
“I’ll tell you what. You tell me her name, and why you were going to steal from me, and maybe this’ll go easy for you.” The old man’s grin scared him. Tommy’s heart pounded so loud in his ears he could hardly understand the words spoken to him.
“Because, I mean, her name is… Emily. She leaves tomorrow. She leaves tomorrow and I don’t have any money. She doesn’t know. Please, sir, I am sorry, please don’t tell my mom.”
“Emily huh? And she doesn’t know?”
“No sir.” Tommy felt the grip on his collar loosen.
“Don’t move,” The old man said as he let go and turned and plucked the top most single rose from its bucket. He turned and squatted down to face Tommy again. “Take this. And if she leaves today, you better hurry. But know this. If I ever catch you hanging around here again, you better be handing me money, kid, or I’ll be takin’ you by twisted ear right to your mom, ya hear me?”
Tommy’s eyes widened and his heart started to crawl back out of the pit deep in his stomach. The old man’s wrinkled hand passed the flower to Tommy’s shaking hand. Tommy never noticed the tear in the corner of the old man’s remaining eye, “Go. There’s nothing worse than never telling her. Go now.”
Tommy did not argue, he did not hesitate. Flower in hand, plastic making rustling sound as his fist tightened around it, he ran. He barely heard the old man calling out to him, urging him forward, but warning him about next time all as one statement. He ran; past the shops, and dodging people on the street. He turned the far corner and ran past the school. He did not stop running until the reached the tract of woods that marked the final blocks to where he knew Emily was.
He stopped at the edge of the trees and looked out over the undergrowth at the moving van in the driveway of her house. He watched as her mother called out to her father as he loaded a stack of boxes. He took the folded paper from his coat. The paper had become crinkled, but he did not care. The old man had let him go, and now he could see her before she left. He could tell her what he had to. He removed the flower from its plastic prison and wrapped the stem in the folded paper. He took another round of deep breaths and walked out of the brush and across the street to Emily’s house.
Both her parents were back inside. As he reached the curb of the sidewalk he saw her. Walking out from the side of the house where she had been his whole life. He only took one step into the dry grass of their front lawn. He stood motionless staring at her. Her hair was the color of the biscuits his mother made. She saw him and walked over to him. He kept the paper wrapped flower behind his back. He noted that she was wearing the shirt with the glitter, that he had made fun of once before. He wished he had never teased her.
“Hi, Tommy. What are you doing here?” She asked her ponytail dropping to one side as she plastered a quizzical look on her face.
“I have to give you something.”
“It’s, well, I mean. Emily, I love you!” He thrust out the rose with the paper folded around the stem.
Her face froze on his words, the colored at first drained and then a second later replaced by glowing red in her cheeks. She took the papered flower and looked at the words written on the outside of the fold. ‘last wil and testimant’ it read.
Tommy took a loud deep breath, “I had to give it to you, because, because you’re leaving. My Dad gave one to my Mom, before… before he was gone. He said it was because he loved us. I wanted to give it to you before you go. In case we don’t see each other anymore.”
Emily looked at him. Tommy could not move. The color of his face joining hers. She turned and began to run away. Tommy started back toward the strip of trees and brush, he had to get home soon. He had told her. He had given it to her.
“Tommy!” Her voice sang in his ear. He turned around to see her running up to him. Her smile and the red in her face was all he could see. She stopped only inches from him, reached up and kissed him. A peck, not on the cheek, but right there, on the corner of his mouth. He smiled.
“Don’t tell anyone, but I love you, too. You tell anyone and I will punch you in the nose.” She turned to walk away again. When she reached the sidewalk again she looked over her shoulder at him, “We’re not going far, I’ll still see you at school, silly.”
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