Mental Arithmetic Error

Submitted into Contest #156 in response to: Write a story about a pathological liar.... view prompt

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Inspirational Contemporary Friendship

Dr. Sheng is a world-renowned expert in grain planting. Once I was with her to the south for an academic conference, and I had a casual chat with her on the way. She confided to me a little secret from her childhood. She said that she had been troubled by one thing she did when she was a child, and the more she achieved in her career, the more she felt that she was a big liar, and she couldn’t forgive herself. That was in the 1960s when her pet name was Ayee.

Ayee’s parents were far away from home. They gave birth to five children in a row. Life was too harsh, so they sent three of them to their grandparents in the countryside. They thought that although their grandparents were also impoverished, the people who owned their land would not starve their children. They could feed them sweet potatoes and corns, all they needed was just an extra pair of chopsticks for each kid. They were so naive that they had no idea what kind of terrible life their grandparents and children lived.

Ever since Ayee could remember, there were very few times when she could let go of her stomach and eat a full meal. But a child was a child, and she didn’t know how to complain. Sometimes when she was too hungry, she tightened her belt as much as possible. She also wished to study hard, become an agricultural expert when she grew up, and grow a lot of grains so that children in the world would no longer starve like the three of them. Not only did she study well, but she also earned work points by herding cattle for the people’s commune.

When Ayee was ten years old, her grandfather wanted her to quit school for work, saying that four years of study would be enough for a girl’s lifetime. Ayee cried and reasoned with her grandfather, telling him that the poorer you are, the more you need to study to have a bright future. Grandpa reluctantly agreed, sold everything that could be sold at home, and saved up two-yuan cash for her tuition and miscellaneous expenses for the next school year.

One day, Ayee was herding cattle by the river. She took off her shoes, tied them with cow ropes, and put them on the cow’s back, then went down to the river to catch some fish, and wanted to take them back to the village to sell for cash. The pair of shoes fell to the ground and was dragged behind the cow. When the cow moved a step, the shoes made a sound. The cow was startled and began to trot, the tug behind it getting louder and louder. Eventually, the cow went crazy and ran along the road to the village. There was a six-year-old kid on the side of the road at the village’s entrance, who happened to be entangled in a cow rope and shoes and was dragged by the cow from the east end of the village to the west end before being rescued. Ayee couldn’t avoid a good spank, and the two-yuan cash saved at home was also used to compensate the injured child.

Seeing that the registration day for the fall term was approaching day by day, Ayee was in a state of urgency, but she did not dare to mention her tuition and miscellaneous expenses to her grandfather. It seems that her desire to continue reading was just a dream. At that moment, three people from another province came to the village and stayed in Grandpa Ayee’s house. They came to buy rapeseed and planned to stay for five days, paying Grandpa twenty cents a day – ten cents for food and ten cents for lodging. Ayee did the math, but it was still not enough for her Fall tuition and miscellaneous fees. It would be great if they stayed for five more days!

 Those people went out to buy rapeseed during the day and sat on the mat at night to chat. Soon, Ayee got acquainted with one of them, Mr. Wang, the accountant, and pestered him to tell some fantasy stories every night. Mr. Wang was literate, a junior high school graduate in his early twenties, and looked more like a teacher.

Ayee was responsible for cleaning their room every day. On the last day, she found something on the top of Mr. Wang’s mosquito net, so she stood on the stool to take a look. She found a small cloth bag with a lot of cash in it, all small notes of one yuan. She didn’t dare to touch the money in it and went for breakfast. At this time, her classmate came and asked her to go to school together for the Fall registration. She said to her classmate: “Could you help me pass a message to the principal that I will go tomorrow.”

After the classmate left, Ayee thought with sadness: “I need one more yuan. If I can’t get it, I am afraid that I will really have to quit school.” Thinking about it, Ayee went to look through the small cloth bag again and smelled the scent of new notes. She still didn’t touch the money inside; it was not her money. She ran to several close relatives and wanted to borrow one yuan. She was refused for various reasons. At that time, one yuan could be exchanged for a hundred eggs.

Disappointed, Ayee finally had an evil thought, untied the cloth bag, gently took out a small one yuan note from it, rolled it up in her cuff, and went to help grandpa with the housework. After busying herself for a long time, she suddenly found that the one-yuan note was missing from her. She didn’t know where it got lost and nowhere to find it. This was in line with Grandpa’s old saying, “you can’t keep what shouldn’t be yours.”

After the dinner, Mr. Wang - the accountant, and the others began to reconcile cash accounts while Ayee and grandfather sat on the side watching. Mr. Wang blinked, muttered to himself, and started scratching his head. One person who came with him asked, “Is it right?” Grandpa also interjected: “Your money is placed in my house just like yours. Nothing could go wrong with it.”

At this moment, Ayee wanted to find a hole to burrow into, her face blushed, and her heart was beating. The hand that stole the money was twisted to numb by the other hand. Mr. Wang looked at everyone, then took another look at Ayee.

Ayee suddenly stood up and wanted to say, “I know, you missed one yuan!” But Mr. Wang motioned her to sit down, and said, “No hurry, I’ll do the calculation again.” He did the mental arithmetic again and finally told everyone that the money spent, and the money left was very consistent, not bad at all.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and Ayee’s tense heart relaxed – no need to worry that grandpa’s bamboo sticks would spank her ass. That night, Ayee didn’t go to Mr. Wang for stories and went to bed early. Lying on the bed, she thought a big thanks to the accountant’s mental calculation error. But that was really a simple mental calculation! The error would not occur if Ayee had done the arithmetic.

Early the following day, the people left. Grandpa went to the people’s commune and wanted to get a cow for Ayee’s future job. The first thing Ayee did when she woke up in the morning was clean every room, hoping to sweep the one yuan note out. She finally found it in the drawer of Mr. Wang’s room, which was wrapped in a small handwritten note: “Ayee, I found this one-yuan bill in the bathroom, it should be yours, please keep it.”

In the blink of an eye, it was another year. Ayee had finished fifth grade. The people from the other province came again and stayed at grandpa’s house. Ayee wondered why Mr. Wang didn’t come this time. She asked them, “Where’s Accountant Wang?”

One of them replied: “Mr. Wang deliberately miscalculated his cash account last year for the rapeseed purchase and embezzled one yuan from the public funds! The village did not let him work as an accountant anymore.”

Ayee asked, “How do you know he must have embezzled?”

“We remember one day at your village he bought wine and drank alone. He must have spent that yuan!”

“Then what did Accountant Wang say?”

“He said that mice were fighting on the top of the mosquito net at night, and the mice must have gotten the cash away. Do you believe it?”

Ayee commented: “That mouse really hurt Accountant Wang!” That night, Ayee confessed to her grandfather what she had done a year ago and asked for a one yuan note from him. She tore off a small corner of the bill and used a needle to poke out a few mouse teeth marks.

When the people from the other province were about to leave, Ayee handed them a small envelope and said, “I just found the bill last night that the mouse took away. It must be the one that was lost last year. Please bring and return it to Accountant Wang. He is innocent.”

They took out the one-yuan note and saw that there were indeed some mouse-bitten tooth marks on the corner of it.

When Dr. Sheng said this, she sighed: “I earned that one yuan with an entire year of work when I was eleven years old! I paid the yuan back, but never dared to admit that I had stolen the money.”

July 26, 2022 18:47

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4 comments

Kathleen Fine
14:09 Aug 09, 2022

I enjoyed reading your story and welcome to Reedsy!

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River Horn
20:40 Aug 10, 2022

Thanks for your kind words.

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Howard Seeley
14:19 Aug 04, 2022

Hi River, Welcome to Reedsy. I enjoyed reading your story, but if I could, I would like to make a suggestion. The first line in your story was bland. You should try to capture the reader's attention right away. Instead of: Dr. Sheng is a world-renowned expert in grain planting. Once I was with her to the south for an academic conference, and I had a casual chat with her on the way. You could say something like: You may know Dr. Sheng as a world-renowned expert in grain planting, but you will be surprised to learn of her humble roots. O...

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River Horn
18:25 Aug 04, 2022

Thank you so much for your valuable comment on the first phrase, that would make a big difference indeed.

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