Lights chased each other around the shadows. The bass beat rhythms against the floor. Ears rang for the noise. Drinks spilled, and were guzzled with abandon. And, in the center of it all, Petra waved his arms and kicked his legs to the rhythm, throwing in a little traditional dance moves, showing off.

     A woman caught his hand, and pulled him away. He swayed his shoulders as she led him out the back of the club, through the kitchen, and out into the night. A rat, disturbed, jumped from its garbage feast. "Hello," Petra wagged his eyebrows. The night was certainly looking up.

     "Foolish man," said the woman. He started to speak, but she put her finger to his lips. "You give yourself away, with all your dance moves. Cremini, aren't you? Fool!" she spat. "Three hundred men out there would kill you, just because of who you are, and where you come from. What are you doing in the city?"

     Petra could hear the music from the alley. "I'm having fun," he said. He wiggled his eyebrows. "Would you like to have some fun?"

     "At whose expense?" she hissed. "You have it, don't you? They gave you the responsibility to exchange their money, didn't they? Oh, you are not like the others, always so watchful in the bank. Then they must rush back to the bus, and sit close to the driver. Silent. Watchful, until your carriers finally return to your little enclave. Tell me, are you at least carrying a knife?"

     "I have my knife in my boot. So what?"

     "So you are a fool! What have you done with the money?"

     He slapped his shirt pocket, still wiggling to the music. "I got it all," he said. "I'm just using what's fair. You know, it's very dangerous, coming to the city. I should be rewarded for it."

     "So you take from the others?" she hissed. "Your bus left hours ago. They'll all be back there, waiting, hoping you come back without any trouble."

     Petra shrugged. "Let them wait," he said. "It isn't my fault, the government insisted in paying the Cremini in dinar. You can't spend a dinar, not anymore. Stores won't accept it. You can't even pay your taxes in dinar. It's just one more circus hoop against my people," he complained. "Even though we have used dinars for hundreds of years, we can only use Euros now. So, we must exchange it, every week, just to pay our bills and stay alive."

     The woman smiled. "You know, Cremini man, I feel for you. I know what becomes of a fool like you." She drew closer and whispered in his ear, "If I were you, I'd run, and never come back."

     "I'm going," he said. "The next bus leaves at midnight. I will be on it."

     "And what time is it now, Cremini?" she taunted.

     Petra glanced at his wrist. His cheap wristwatch     wasn't there. He sighed. It took his wife months of scraping pennies together to buy him the watch. She would not be pleased.

     The woman studied him with a twisted smile. From her own pocket she produced his watch. "I return this to you because my grandmother was a Cremini, and she spent her whole life hiding that fact. Go home. You have missed the midnight bus, but you could still walk home. Go through the forest, and watch out for lights. Everyone knows the Cremini cash their checks on this day every week. Thieves are watching you, and the authorities would love nothing better than to catch a Cremini out past their curfew. Leave now, and never try to come back here again."

     She went to the back door the club and turned. "You know, I feel sorry for you. When the others discover what you have done, you will pay for it, as will your family. Go, now, while you can. Find the hidden paths. Run home, foolish man, and don't get caught."

     He heard the click of the lock as she closed the back door. In the spotlight behind the club, he quickly glanced at the Euros. There were few left. His people would not be happy.

     He crossed the road and hugged the alleys and shadows, aiming for the stand of trees that marked the entrance to the park. From there, he loped through the forest, searching through the darkness for the Cremini markings, the single blaze cut in trunks, the double chips on rocks. Behind him, he heard voices. He doubled his pace. A dog barked, answered by a man's call. Fear rose in him. He hadn't walked this trail since he was a boy. There was a brook somewhere to his left--he remembered that, at least.

     Another voice on the ridge behind him, said, "This way." He plunged blindly through the trees. "We got him," someone called. He pushed through brambles, tripped on roots. Water rushed before him. He plunged. Fingers of icy water clenched at his groin. He gasped. Brush crashed behind him. He heard snuffling, and panting.

     In the water, he swam towards the far bank. He glanced back behind him. He could just see a white dog in the gloom, snuffling the river bank. "He's in the water!" someone called.

     He took a deep breath, and dove beneath the surface, weaving his body into a stand of reeds. Carefully, he raised just his head above the surface. Three men were talking together, as one of them clipped a leash on the dog's collar. "You're lucky this time, Cremini!" called one of the men. "But don't let me ever catch you out of bounds past curfew again, or I will arrest you!"

     The men talked among themselves, pulling the dog along as they climbed the ridge, and away.

     Petra swam some, hugging the bank on the far shore. In time, his body trembled with the cold. Before him, stretched across the stream, a rusty chain-linked fence marked Cremini territory. He was nearly home.

     He made his way back across to the other side of the stream, clutching the fence against the current. He reached the other side, and found where part of the fence had been cut, then bent back into place. He climbed through the fence, then up the steep bank. Finally, he was in Cremini territory.

     Pinks and yellows flushed the sky as the sun rose. Petra could think of nothing but returning to the bus stop, just outside the school. The others would be surprised to see that he was not on the bus, he thought, grinning. They would wonder what had happened to him. He could jump out from behind the bus and yell, 'Surprise!' His wife would smile, always amused by his antics. His daughter Samya would brag to her schoolmates, 'Look at my daddy! He's so clever, he beat the bus home!' Samya would brag to her classmates that her daddy was the best daddy in the whole world. Perhaps even the elders would be impressed.

     But the bus was there, parked in front of the school yard. The villagers surrounded it, as the school children sat quietly behind the crowd, on the steps of the tiny one-room school house.

     Petra tried to make the best of it. He slipped quietly at the back of the bus, and peered around the corner. The driver stood at the open door of the bus, holding his hands up in the air. "He didn't ride with me," he explained.

     The people surrounding him frowned in anger. "Then where is he?" someone demanded.

     "Ta da!" cried Petra. "I am here!" He leapt forward from behind the bus.

     "Why weren't you on the bus?" one of the Elders asked.

     "Can I go?" asked the driver.

     "Go," someone commanded. The driver wasted no time, climbing up into the bus and roaring away.

     The Cremini villagers gathered around Petra, eager for their money. "Well?" asked an Elder.

     Petra patted his pockets and pulled out the stack of identification cards. An Elder grabbed the cards and began to distribute them. Petra nodded in approval, saying, "Give ours to my wife." He gestured towards the care-worn woman standing in the circle with a baby on her hip. "Where is my daughter?" called Petra. "Where is my Samya?"

     "Here, Daddy," The little girl jumped from the school house steps she was sitting on and ran to hug Petra. He pulled his cheap watch from another pocket and handed it to the girl. Water beaded up on the inside of the crystal. He put the watch into her hand and closed her fingers over it. "Daddy?" Samya asked.

     "You mind this, now," said Petra. "Put it in your pocket."

     "What are you doing?" his wife asked.

     Petra ignored her. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Euros. He handed the bills to an Elder, and directed his daughter away from the crowded adults. "You go sit over there, Samya," he directed her back to the school steps.

     The Elder looked at the few bills in his hand, and stared at Petra. "What did you do?" he asked.

     Petra faced the Elder. "I spent it," he admitted.

     "No!" a woman screamed. "My father! His medicine!"

     Other people gathered around Petra and the Elder. "Say it isn't so," cried a man. "Say you were mugged!" A woman wailed, "What am I to do?"

     Petra," his wife called. The rest of the Cremini fell silent. "What have you done?"

     Petra's eyes met hers. He knew what was coming. He said, "I ruined us." He turned towards an Elder. "I admit it," he said. "Please don't involve my family."

     The Elder studied him. "You know the consequences, Petra," he said.

     "I can make it up," he offered.

     "How?" a woman cried. "My father will die, now. We cannot afford his medicine."

     "I will work," Petra declared. He turned towards his wife. "I will go into the city and work in the factories. I will send money home. Euros, for you, my wife, and for all of you. I will pay this debt."

     The villagers talked angrily over each other. "He should..." and "My God! The fool...." His wife stood in silence and stared at him.

     The Elder let the people hurl their insults at Petra, surrounding him, and jabbing their fingers towards him. "Daddy?" Samya called.

     The crowd fell silent. Petra glanced hopefully at the Elder. "The law, Petra," he reminded him.

     Petra sighed and nodded. "Wife? Samya? Come here, please." He put his hand on his daughter's head, and bent to kiss his wife and baby.

     "I don't understand, Daddy," said Samya. "I'm frightened."

     "I know, my sweet, but your Daddy was a very, very bad man. You are the head of the household, now, Samya. Until your brother grows older, you must take care of the family. It will be very hard. You must get a job. You must give up school."

     "No!" she cried.

     "Samya, listened to me." He knelt before her. "Because of what I did, your life will change. There will be no more school. And there will be no more eggs, nor bread, nor milk, nor apples. You will be very lucky to have potatoes. That is all."

     "Petra, she can work in my fields," said one man.

     "And the fish house," said a woman. "I will teach her how to clean the fish."


     "See? These people are very kind. Already you have two jobs, so that you can take care of your mother and baby brother."

     "Petra, it is time," said the Elder.

     "Of course," he replied. He picked up a stone from the ground and handed it to his daughter. "You are a big girl, now. You must take care of your family."

     "What do I do with this, Daddy?"

     He hugged her and looked into her eyes. He said, "You must throw it at your daddy, as hard as you can. Do you understand?"

     "But why?"

     "Because, my sweet child, you are now a grown up. Your life is over. Everything you love--your books, your friends, your freedom--I destroyed it. I destroyed you. Take this stone, Samya, and throw it."

     He watched as Samya stared at him. He watched as her puzzled frown dawned into the realization, that she would no longer have her life. School would be but a memory. Her tummy would be empty, and her back would ache from the hard work and beatings that was to be her lot. She must face a future that her Daddy had created for her.

     He watched as Samya's eyes flashed into anger. And he watched as she drew her hand back, and threw the stone at his head.

May 10, 2024 18:04

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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