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Contemporary Inspirational Fiction

Poor Man’s Game

By

Alpha Tooni

“You either work this weekend, or you’re fired!!!”

My boss pointed a stubby finger at me as fire burned in his eye. He breathed heavily after his violent outburst. As I weighed the consequences of my response, a heavy silence filled the space between us. 

Where had I gone wrong?

Every decision I made in life led to this fateful moment but truth was, I never wanted to go into finance. When I was young, I always wanted to become a writer. Every story I had, I would write down in my private notebook that I kept hidden from the world but when I was nine, Uncle Steve got his hands on a story I wrote about a puppy who had to save a family of butterflies. When he finished reading through it, he looked up at me with his iconic goofy smile.

“You have a gift,” he said , “Most writers don’t know how to use their imagination like you do. This is good work.”

It was the confidence boost I needed. From that moment on, I felt emboldened to blast my manuscripts out to everyone I knew but also made sure that Uncle Steve got first dibs. Every time I brought him one, he would eagerly read through it and tell me that he was proud of my work. Unfortunately, my father did not share the sentiment and made his opinion known.

“Writing is a poor man’s game,” he would say.

Luckily, Uncle Steve had my back, winking at me every time he had to push Dad off his high horse. I learned a lot from Uncle Steve, most notably to follow what I was passionate about in life.

“Never forget what makes you happy,” were the last words I remember him saying before he passed away from cancer. Being in high school at the time, it was a devastating blow. I felt lost without him. Every story I wrote after he passed only received backlash from my father.

“Why do you waste your time?” Dad preached, “If you want to be successful, learn about money.”

I followed his advice and got accepted into a good university to learn about finance. I tried to get myself interested in the subject but I would constantly find myself staring out the window with visions of new stories playing out in my head. My pencil would hover over my notebook, itching to write out what I saw.  

Halfway through college, I yearned to tell my parents how much I hated my major and how I desperately wanted to drop out to pursue something else. During one of our phone calls, I briefly mentioned my discontent, but Father simply responded, “Fake it until you make it, son.”

So I kept my mouth shut, put my head down, and pushed through my remaining semesters with a zombified vigor. The further I progressed, the more I forced myself to study, and the less I found myself looking out the window during class. My vivid daydreams came less frequently.   

During my final semester, while everyone else was focusing on trying to land a job after graduation, I was talking with my girlfriend about how we should travel the world when we finish college.

“We can take a year or two off and just backpack through the mountains!”

She beamed at me with eyes that shone like polished emeralds. 

“Which mountains?” she asked as she played with her wavy blonde hair, something she did whenever our interests aligned.

“Any mountains!” I laughed.

These plans were dashed the moment Dad called after I aced my final exams.

“I have some excellent news, son,” he said and sounded more upbeat that usual.  

“What is it?” I asked.

“I pulled some strings and got you an internship at Golden Sacks! You can start the week after you graduate. ”

When I didn’t immediately respond, he grew concerned.

“What’s wrong? I thought this is what you wanted.” 

“Yeah, but…” my voice trailed off for a moment and then I said, “Cynthia and I made plans to travel.”

“That’s a swell plan. Choose a place to go the weekend after you graduate and I’ll pay for everything. My gift to you for finishing top of your class.”

I wanted to say that we planned to be gone for at least a year but I also knew securing a internship at Golden Sacks was no easy thing to do, even with my father’s clout.

Cynthia cried when I told her we would only be able to travel for a weekend.

“You said we would travel the world together. Just us,” she said. Tears streamed down her porcelain cheeks. I felt terrible doing this to her.

“I know, baby, but father says this internship could really jump start my career.”

She didn’t respond; she only sobbed into her hands. I leaned in and held her close.

“Think about it. Dad says that once I get a full time job with these guys, I will make enough money for us to travel anywhere in the world.”

Cynthia wiped her face with the back of her sleeve.

“You really think that?” 

I paused. Our relationship might not survive another false promise.

“Yes,” I said not too convincingly, “Give me a year and I promise that we will be sipping bellinis in Santorini.”

I took me five grueling years to secure a full time position at Golden Sacks and not once did I call in sick or take time off. Upon promotion, the boss shook my hand, smiled though his crooked teeth, and said, “Take this Friday off. My treat for all your hard work.”

That night I took Cynthia our favorite high rise restaurant in the heart of downtown.

“I’m happy for you,” she said and smiled unconvincingly. While we sat at the table, I would catch her staring out the restaurant window to the mountains beyond the city skyline. I grabbed her hand and leaned in close. 

“Don’t worry, once I get settled and find my rhythm, I’ll put in a request so we can take off for a couple weeks. Father says that finding a rhythm is key to surviving in this industry.”

Three years later, I still hadn’t found my rhythm and I made few friends along the way. The ones I made when I first started, I ended up turning my back on in order to secure my path forward. It unsettled me to act so callous toward them but my father reassured me that, “They would do the same to you. I’ve been around this industry long enough to know everyone is cut-throat.” 

I tried to talk to Cynthia about it, but she was so preoccupied with her own work that she allotted me little time to vent.

“Don’t worry, son,” Dad said, “She’ll appreciate all your hard work when you are older and living comfortably. Just look at your mother and I. She has the biggest smile whenever I give her the credit card and send her to the mall.”

While he laughed, I thought about how I rarely remembered seeing my mother smile.

One morning, Father woke up, went to do his morning stretches, and was hit with a massive heart attack. At the funeral, people said good things about him but no one really mourned his passing. Mother got most of the inheritance but ended up spending it all and had to move in with my brother.

Cynthia called me after the funeral.

“How are you holding up?” she asked.

“Fine.” 

There was a pause between us. 

“I can’t remember the last time I dreamt.”

I could hear her fingers busily clacking away at a keyboard.

“Really? I’m sorry to hear that.”

I felt lost again. Not knowing what to do, I devoted all of my time to work often going days without talking to Cynthia. Whenever my boss saw me at the office after everyone else had left, he smiled, patted me on the back and would say, “You’re going to go far kid.”

I would smile back, but then glance at picture on my desk of Cynthia. Her smile was like a punch to my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her that happy in person.

Where had all the years gone?

“Did you hear me!?” my boss screamed, “I said…”

“Yes,” I shouted, “I heard you.”

“And!? Are you going to work this weekend or not? We have a lot riding on this deal! Your plans to go hold hands with your girlfriend can wait…”

As he ranted, my eyes instinctively went to the window behind him and I was suddenly watching a vision play out before me. Cynthia and I backpacking along a mountainous trail, deep in conversation. We both looked happy. Two small kids ran past us, laughing as one grabbed the walking stick from me and continued off down the trail. Cynthia and I laughed and ran after them. I picked up the nearest one, a little girl that couldn’t have been more than five or six. Her eyes sparkled as she looked up at me. Suddenly the vision faded and I was back at the office. My boss stared at me with an impatient glare but I didn’t say anything to him. I just smiled and left.

I rushed down to the parking garage, hopped in my Mercedes, and drove as fast as I could to Cynthia’s apartment. When I got there, I stormed up three flights of stairs, and ran to her door. 

“Cynthia?!” I cried as I flung it open. 

The hollow echo of my voice was the only greeting I received in the empty apartment. All that was left were a few nail holes in the wall and outlines in the carpet where the furniture had been. My legs gave out and I dropped to my knees and wept. I was too late.

“Excuse me?” a voice shouted, “What are you doing here?”

I was on my feet in an instant and wheeled about to see a woman standing in the doorway.

“Cynthia! The woman who used to live here! Do you know where she is?”

The woman eyed me, nervously.

“Leave before I call the police!”

Defeated and disheartened, I returned to my apartment hoping that its homely vibe would bring me comfort, but I took one look around and felt nothing but disgust. I walked over to the mini bar, grabbed a bottle of Jameson, and stared out my high rise window. The mountains loomed in the distance but never had they looked so far away. Tears welled up in my eyes and I took a long swig from the bottle, plopped down on the couch, and stared at the wall.

Hours later, I heard a faint knocking at the door. I ignored it, but when the door opened I knew it could only be one person.

“Cynthia!” I cried and stumbled over to her with a half drunken swagger. I went to hug her but she pulled away before I got the chance.  

“What happening to you?” she demanded, “I heard you came by my old apartment. I tried calling your phone but you didn’t pick up. I called your office and they told me you quit! Why would you do such a thing!? ”

“Why did you move?” I asked in a somber tone.

She gave me a blank stare and I knew she was about to give me an answer I didn’t want to hear. Immediately, I intervened. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a receipt for two plane tickets. I held it out in front of me as if they were a desperate plea.

“Look! It’s the beginning of the journey we should have taken so long ago.”

Cynthia stared at it for a moment and then started playing with her hair. I put the receipt back into my pocket and took her delicate hand in mine.

“For all of my adult life I had followed my father’s instruction and it brought me nothing but emptiness. It’s time I focus on what’s really important in life.”

Cynthia stared at me, not knowing how to respond but, before I could say anything else, she lunged forward and hugged me tight.

“I’ve been so lost without this side of you,” she said.

I wrapped my arms around her.

“Me too.”

June 16, 2022 02:49

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