3rd Place – October 2019

Crime Doesn’t Pay

By

Gail Armstrong

Kids do dumb things.
I was ten.  Heather was eleven. We talked about a super way to make money. I concocted the plan, and my older and wiser best friend thought it was a stellar idea.
Carson’s Store on the next block is where we bought candy. It was also where the never-ending supply of empty soda bottles were stockpiled, outside behind the store. Bottles were worth two to five cents each. A lot of candy bars.
The Little Big Store down the road was where we bought bread and milk for our parents and where we cashed in the soda bottles we retrieved. I’ll rephrase that. The soda bottles we stole from Carson’s.
Yup, we took the bottles from one store, quietly stacked them into our red wagon (yeah, we had a red wagon) and delivered them to another store for cash. Clever plan huh?
“Why would they mind? We’ll be helping them get rid of garbage, right?” I said.
“Yeah, and they have hundreds.” Heather exaggerated.
I can’t believe we thought it was okay, but that’s what we made ourselves think.
Yup, we were crooks. Possibly budding hardcore criminals, until that fateful night with one weak moment of not feeling right, of feeling downright guilty, I lavishly poured the shiny coins out on the living room rug in front of my kind but strict father and proclaimed, “Dad, look how much money I have.” The exact words of a blithering idiot.
“What? Where did you get this, Gracie?” His stern eyes bored into my numbed brain.
We’re caught. No dummy, you turned yourself in.
He won’t hurt me.
He doesn’t spank me. I’m in for the lecture of my life and will be sent to my room for a long time. I squirmed in my hot seat.
I’ll say this today, as an adult regarding crime. I wouldn’t make a good criminal.
My belly did somersaults while my head throbbed like a drum.
The thought of upchucking Mom’s favorite roast chicken all over her immaculate floor daunted me. Could it get any worse?
“How did you come up with this money?” His cold voice sliced through my thin skin straight to my soul.
A grand total of three dollars and forty-seven cents lay out before us. A lot for a ten-year-old in 1953. I was proud for one fearless second. “Heather and I got it.”
I struggled to fight back tears and my body quivered.  I knew immediately what we had done was wrong.
“What do you mean, got it? Got it how?” His voice took on the demeanor of judge and jury and we were damn guilty. Twenty years of hard labor, no more candy, ice cream or anything.
Oh, the composure he displayed. The cool, calm, unemotional presence of self-control. He was my hero. He knew everything.
“Well, we sort…ah…sort of took bottles from behind Carson’s and…and cashed them in at The Little Big Store. Said quickly in one breath with a vast sigh at the end. I waited for my world to end. Maybe he’ll think it was a smart plan to make money
“What do mean sort of? You either did or you didn’t take them. Which is it?”
He moved closer, coming in for the kill. His glowering eyes stared directly into my inner thoughts, now a muddled junk heap. Hot tears welled up in my childish eyes, eager to cascade down my rosy cheeks. Sweaty brown hair stuck to my damp forehead.
Oh God, I’ll take the garbage out without being asked. I’ll dig pee and poop out of Kitty’s litter box every day. Please, anything, I silently prayed.
“Yes Dad, we t-took them. We’re—I’m sorry.”
“That’s stealing. You know that, Gracie.” The blatant disapproval in his squinted eyes shot through my body like steel screws and skewered me to the proverbial cross. I was dead.
“I guess it is.” Sadness heavy in my shaky voice.
“Guess?” The volume of his voice grew with each precisely chosen word. “There’s no guessing here. It’s stealing, plain and simple. Those bottles were on their property which means they, or anything else, belongs to them, including garbage.”
“And how much does your friend have?” His voice controlled, his body taut and still, as he lifted his head. A quiet, unnerving manner, so disarming.
“We split it.”
“Well, young lady, it all goes back to Carson’s tomorrow with your apologies and it will never happen again, right?”
“Yes, Dad,” I blurted. “I promise never to take, steal anything again.”
He shook his head. “I’m surprised at you Gracie, and a Girl Scout too.”
 Girl Scout struck my stomach like a brick.
 No blood…tears, yes. A hard lesson.
 He marched out of the room.
 We humbly returned every cent.
“We’re sorry.” The hardest words to say.
The owner, gracious, considering everything, likely thought we had been punished enough. “If you promise not to do this again, I’ll forget the whole thing.”
“We won’t,” we said.
“Thank you.” We replied in unison.
Nope, crime doesn’t pay. There was no way either of us would make this mistake again.
***
“We can do something else to make money. Something lawful.”
“Yeah.” Heather agreed.
“Hey, I know–there are gigantic blueberries growing in the empty lot behind Miss Smith’s house across the street from me. We could sell them.”
“Yeah, thirty-five cents a box,” Heather said. “We’ve got oodles of berry boxes in our cellar.”
“All the berries are on the other side of the old stonewall in her yard— in the messy, overgrown field. That’s not stealing, right?” I said with gusto.
“Nope, that’s not stealing.” A toothy smile lit up Heather’s chubby face as she fingered her red hair.
***
Buckets in hand, we scampered over the wall.
The unwavering fragrance of succulent, sweet blueberries wafted through the warm, morning air and tantalized our nostrils. Huge as marbles, plump, ripe and ready.
With youthful fervor we plucked the bountiful blue beauties. We tossed them ravenously into our open mouths and waited for them to explode on unsuspecting tongues.
“Scrummy, yummy,” I said.
“Mmm…same here.” My buddy agreed.
Our buckets almost full, we jolted to a piercing scream erupted from Miss Smith’s open screen door.
“Oh– she’s in trouble,” I cried out. “Let’s go.”
 We dashed to her rescue.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” I called through the dark screen on the door.
“Oh my. Is that you Gracie?” she moaned.
“Yes, Miss Smith, me and Heather. Can we help you?”
“Yes, oh please come in, dear.
We quickly entered.
“Oh my,” she cried. “I cut myself on a broken soda bottle. My darn arthritis is acting up and the bottle slipped right out of my hand. Of course, silly me I tried to pick up the pieces and don’t cha know, I cut my finger. Tsk, tsk, oh dear look how it’s bleeding. That was silly– and I can’t open the bandage,” she rambled.
“It’s okay. Don’t worry, Miss Smith, we’ll help,” I said.
Together, we opened the bandage and washed her gashed finger that oozed red blood.
We dried it with a clean towel and secured a bandage around it.
After placing her safely in a chair, I removed the broken glass scattered on the kitchen floor with her broom and dustpan.
“My gracious, what would I do without you girls? You’re both so smart and kind to me.
Thank you.” She was settled down and calmer. “I bet you don’t do dumb things like picking up broken soda bottles.”
Nope, we just steal them, I thought.
“You’d be surprised.” I peeked at Heather, who was quietly laughing with her hand over her mouth.
“I hope you’re getting a lot of blueberries.”
“We are.”
“They say they’re extra juicy this year, and sweet like sugar, better than soda.” She said.
“We’ll give you some before we go home.” I added.
“That would be lovely. It’s nice to know there are caring people in the neighborhood. Crime is on the rise. Tsk, tsk. Mercy me, why I’ve taken to locking my doors at night. Can you believe that?” Her soft, white curls bounced as she shook her head.
We nodded, said goodbye and went back to pick more berries.
“Wow, do you think she meant us?” Heather said.
“No, and we’re not doing anything bad anymore. That was one time.”
“Yeah, partners in crime no more.”  My bestie sighed.
“We’re Girl Scouts,” I said as we filled up our buckets.
After leaving berries with Miss Smith, we hurried home, prepared our berries, went door to door and sold ten boxes.

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