A Million Dollars
Josh was born like every other kid. There was nothing extraordinary about the day. His parents were there. The doctor was there, nurses too. The grandparents that Josh would never get to know very well were there too. His parents told him the story a lot. It was their favorite story to tell him because Josh was their most favorite part of life.
Josh felt different from a very early age. He started first grade when he was six years old. He liked to sit in the back of the classroom so he could see everyone else around him. Plus, then the mean kids weren’t behind him. If they sat behind you, you didn’t stand a chance of avoiding one of their pranks. So Josh always found a seat in the back, and watched the proceedings of the school day from a safe place.
By the time Josh got to fourth grade, he was nine years old. He seemed to grow at an alarming rate. Not physically. He wasn’t taller than anyone or faster or stronger. He couldn’t even do any pull-ups in gym class. But he was smarter. And he was nicer. He wasn’t casually candid or self-centered. Even at age nine, Josh felt a need to be heroic. And so Josh’s problems began. Those mean kids from first grade never changed during the course of those three years from first to fourth grade. In fact, they got worse.
It always made Josh wonder about the ways of the world when he watched the mean kids push around smaller kids or hit them with those red dodge balls as hard as they could. Josh always saw the good in his classmates, but he failed to see the good in picking on kids smaller than himself simply because they were smaller. That was why he didn’t agree with the way the mean kids acted. And so he decided, one day at recess, to stand up for the kids being picked on. It was always a good thing for Josh to want to do well. It usually ended up being an entirely different thing when he actually tried to do some good on his own.
Needless to say, Josh didn’t fare well against the bully, only finding himself the new target of the bully’s ire. But Josh didn’t let it get him down. He soldiered on through fourth grade with a bully in tow.
Through the course of the school year, Josh would go home after class, sit down at the dinner table with his mother and father, and talk to them about his day. Most of the time he did the talking. Not that his parents didn’t care to say anything to him. But they weren’t the most talkative pair in the history of the world. Josh didn’t mind much. He liked talking anyway. He would sit at the table while his parents smiled and nodded and listened to every word he had to say. And of course they occasionally threw in some motherly and fatherly tidbits like, “He’ll grow out of bullying,” and, “Sometimes it’s better just to ignore kids like that.”
Then one day, Josh’s bully problems ended.
The school year was winding to a close. Most of the children in Josh’s class had given up on class participation because, frankly, they only had a week and a half left. Most everyone desperately looked forward to the summer. On one particular unremarkable day, Josh’s teacher, who was a mean, grumpy old man – everyone thought for sure he was older than the Earth – asked a history question that Josh and only a few others knew. The War of 1812 was the final subject of the year for history and barely a kid in the class had paid attention. But Josh knew that three of the American commanders in that war were American Presidents as well. Josh raised his hand, as he liked answering questions and did so on a regular basis. But his teacher, as grumpy as always, decided to call on someone else.
The bully, or course, didn’t know the answer, and became furious when Josh answered it correctly right after the teacher had nastily shouted “wrong!” The bully turned in his chair slowly like a viper, expressionless face, unblinking eyes, staring down his next meal. Josh felt his chest grow tight with fear and he looked straight down at his desk. With nervous energy pulsing through him, Josh began tracing his finger around a smiley face that had been carved into the desk by some delinquent kid. He traced and traced until the tip of his finger hurt. He wasn’t generally afraid of his bully, but he wasn’t thrilled about the incipient torment. An unfortunate incident in the hallway called Josh’s teacher out of the room, and that cued the bully to strike. He flew out of his seat, nostrils flaring, eyes bulging like balloons about to pop. He strode toward Josh with volcanic ill intent.
And then something extremely odd happened.
The bully raised his fist up over his head, a final knock to Josh’s life no doubt.
The bully grabbed Josh’s desk for even more leverage to land this deathblow.
And then the bully stopped.
For Josh, the whole world stopped. He sat there, his body tense, his eyes squeezed closed in anticipation to the attack. And yet no attack came. Slowly, very slowly, Josh opened his eyes. The bright light of the classroom flooded his vision for a moment and then the figure of the bully came into focus. Both of the bully’s arms were at his sides. All menace had left his face. Instead, he smiled. He looked down at Josh with something in his eyes that might have been camaraderie or brotherly love. Then he patted Josh on the back and quietly returned to his desk.
“What the…” Josh muttered, unable to believe what had just happened.
The rest of the day went on as usual, save for the constant harassment from the bully. It was as if a peace treaty had been signed. All was happy and serene. Josh found that he needed to mutter to himself for the rest of the day just to try to understand what had happened. But it turned out that the occurrence was simply too bizarre to unravel. Eventually, after a few days, he let the incident go in his mind, though that bully never bothered him ever again. He never bothered anyone again, in fact. And that began a chain reaction with all of the lesser bullies. They saw the ringleader halt his relentless attacks and so they stopped as well. Josh quickly became known as the bully tamer and at most lunch periods his fellow classmates showered him with extra tater tots.
Josh enjoyed some amateur celebrity through the rest of fourth grade and through fifth. He began excelling in his studies once in Middle School. By eighth grade, the few friends he had he all but abandoned, never hanging out, never calling, instead focusing on reading. He wanted to ace all of his classes in the first semester because one of his teachers promised him a special elective if he did so. Josh was allowed to pick any subject he wanted. Any subject at all. With this new drive to be the best student at school, Josh nearly forgot about everything else in the world. But it paid off. When the day finally came for him to pick his new class, he rushed home to tell his parents.
“Mom! Dad! I picked my class today!” he cried as he crashed through the front door, making a b-line for the kitchen. “Mom! Dad! I…”
Josh stopped dead in his tracks. The kitchen had a large island in the middle with stools around it. It was where Josh usually ate breakfast, but at that moment, both his mom and dad were standing at the counter. Opposite them loomed a frightening figure. Josh nearly cried out with fear but the horrendous presence of this man stuffed the whimpers right back down Josh’s throat before they had a chance to come out.
The man stood tall. He was long-limbed, like Jack Skellington, and only slightly thicker than the Disney character. His head was long and narrow, and all of his features pointed downward like arrows. His nose looked like a long “V”, his almond-shaped eyes angled down toward his nose, and his thick black eyebrows came down in a “V” over his eyes. He wore a red tunic with a black vest over it and black pants. He looked seriously deadly. Yet there was still more to him. Josh had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was seeing. Over the man’s right eye was a tattoo. It was a simple black sketching covering a fourth of the man’s face. It seemed an oddly familiar symbol, though Josh had no idea what it meant.
“Josh!” cried Josh’s mom. She quickly swept him up in her arms and carried him out of the kitchen like a big log. As the kitchen door swung shut, the man smiled a devious smile and waved to him, revealing another strange symbol on the palm of his hand.
Without breaking stride or resting even a half second, Josh’s mom ushered him straight up to his bedroom where she dropped him on his bed.
“Josh,” she said. “I’m sorry you walked into such an odd situation. Your father and I needed to take care of some business with that man down there. We completely lost track of time. But we will be finished soon, so you just stay up here and we’ll come get you when our friend leaves.”
“That man is your friend?” Josh blurted incredulously. Surely his nice, safe parents could not call that horror a friend.
“Uh, yes, well…associate, we can call him.”
“Uh…okay, mom. I trust you.”
“Good.” With that, Josh’s mom gave him a kiss on the head and hurried out of his bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Of course Josh trusted his mom, and his dad. But at the same time, he wanted to hear what they could possibly be talking about with such a terrifying individual. So, in the manner of eighth-graders, Josh quietly opened his bedroom door and, taking off his sneakers, padded his way down the hall. Taking one step at a time to slide his rear over the edge as quietly as possible, Josh eventually settled to perch halfway down the stairs. He held his breath and listened.
“You know the rules, Beth,” croaked the stranger, his voice deceptively pleasant, like an opera singing baritone cobra, deep and venomous. “We told you years ago the agreement.”
“We understand,” came Josh’s mom’s voice. “You can’t collect. Not yet.”
“We’ll get you the money.” Josh’s dad.
“Frankly, Ani doesn’t need any more money. This is a business, you know. And he’s very good at it. He’s quite successful. What he really wants is…”
“We know what he wants,” snapped Josh’s dad.
“Don’t you speak to me in such a manner, Ed!” the stranger said immediately. “Now, you know the deal. I collect one or the other.”
“We know.” Mom.
“Give us a week.” Dad. “We’ll have the money.”
“We really don’t care for the money,” said the stranger.
“Well we’re not ready for you to collect!” cried Josh’s mom.
“Fine,” began the stranger.
Josh then realized that he’d crept all the way down the steps and was standing right at the kitchen door. His heartbeat thumped within his ears.
“I’ll return in a week,” said the stranger. “A million dollars then or I collect.”
“Fine,” replied Josh’s parents together.
Josh turned his head so his left eye lined up with the crease between the kitchen door and the jamb. He could just make out the back door of the house. The man was standing there, his back to Josh’s parents. He made a sound of irritation and then grabbed the doorknob with the hand he’d used to wave at Josh. Beyond that door sat the backyard. There was a net with a baseball tee. There was a small deck with a grill on it. There was a shed and a fence and another house a hundred feet away. Yet when the man touched the doorknob, the door’s window went black as the dead of night. He pulled the door open with his tattooed hand and stepped into a void. The yard was gone.
When the door shut, the window returned to normal.
“We don’t have that money,” Josh’s mom said gloomily.
“I know,” replied his dad, equally sad.
“Let’s go get Josh, I’m sure he’s terrified.”
Snapping out of his shock, Josh hauled himself away from the door, up the stairs, and threw himself onto his bed. His parents walked in a few seconds after.
“Hey there, kid,” Josh’s dad said. “How was your day?” He sat down on the bed next to Josh while Josh’s mom stayed standing.
“It was good, dad,” Josh said, trying to keep any questions to himself. “I got to pick my new class.”
“Great! What did you pick?”
Josh’s dad and mom shared a tense glance.
“That man scared me,” Josh said plainly. He never kept anything from his parents.
Josh’s dad chuckled. “He scares us too, son.”
“Why was he here?” he asked.
“That’s not something you need to worry yourself about,” his mom said.
“Well, what was that symbol tattooed over his eye then? What was it?”
“It was nothing, Josh. Just a poor fashion choice.”
Josh sighed. Any time he wanted to know a secret, his parents stopped him dead. They were like bank vaults with their secrets. Nothing Josh could say would break through their impenetrable barriers. He knew it. They knew it. So all Josh could really do was sigh and move on. But in his head, he wasn’t moving on at all.
“Good,” his dad said. “We’re done with this then? Fine. Your mom will have dinner ready soon, so why don’t you start your homework and we’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“Okay dad,” Josh said. His parents smiled at him before they left him alone in his bedroom.
Josh didn’t even look at his textbooks. He immediately took out a sketchbook from under his bed. Josh didn’t have a photographic memory. He hadn’t become so smart because he could close his eyes and see the pages of books he’d read. No, he studied just like every other kid in school. He just happened to study a lot more than normal. But something he was good at remembering was shapes. And so he took a pencil and concentrated on that man’s hideous face. He searched his memory, envisioned the tattoo covering the eye and cheekbone. Once he felt he had it captured, he took to the white paper in front of him.
Five minutes later, after fiddling with edges, Josh felt he had a pretty good rendition of the face tattoo. He tore the page out of the sketchbook and slid the book back under his bed.
“What could this be for?” he said. His first thought was to look through the symbol. But that was silly because he wouldn’t be able to see through the paper.
“I did go through the trouble of drawing this thing.”
Easily convinced, Josh held the paper up to his right eye. Nothing happened.
“Hmm…I wonder where that guy is right now,” he said, just wondering out loud. “Ah!”
He felt like he was being sucked through a tiny little tube. Colors blurred by him so fast he thought he would throw up soon. And then he stopped. He saw the man. There was a dark alley, rain, shadows, fog – fitting, Josh thought. But…
He pulled the paper away from his face. He stood in his bedroom. He held the paper back up to his eye. There was the man, sneaking like a weasel down that alley again.
He dropped the paper again. Again he was in his bedroom.
“Wow,” he said in disbelief. “This is insane.”
The call from his mom for dinner startled Josh so much that he tripped and fell onto his bed. Worrying that his parents would find it, Josh tore the paper up into tiny pieces and resolved to keep this secret to himself. So many odd things had happened already today, he didn’t need to burden his parents with the existence of weird symbols that help you see things far away.
The next morning, Josh awoke ready for a new school semester. He’d been so excited for this day since the beginning of his eighth grade year. He’d all but forgotten about the previous day’s incident. But as he stood in the shower, hot water pouring over his head, Josh couldn’t keep the thoughts out of his head. Visions of the scary man with the face tattoo flooded back into his mind, the far-seeing symbol, the million dollars his parents needed.
“Oh no,” Josh said. “What about that money. I heard dad say they didn’t have it.” Josh racked his brain with ideas. What could he possibly do to help? Nothing. He didn’t have any way to get money. And what would they lose if they didn’t get the money?
Josh leaned against the tiled wall of the shower, his hope sinking down to the drain. Worry washed over him like the high-powered jets of the showerhead. Giving in to the reality that he could do nothing for his parents, Josh drew an “X” in the condensation on one of the wall tiles and sighed.
“I wish my parents had that money right now.”
With his shower finished, the usual feeling of refreshment was supposed to have hit him, but Josh just felt down. He was down, blue, downtrodden. He was useless to help his parents. He hated himself for being so amazing in school and yet still being so helpless in the real world. He was only thirteen after all. But it still stunk.
Josh dried off, dressed, and hung his towel on his bedroom doorknob. He slung his book bag over his shoulder and trudged downstairs.
“What the…” he muttered.
His parents stood in the hallway in similar disbelief. Stacked all around the hall, up the walls, into the kitchen, all over the living room, were piles and piles and piles of bright green money. Josh peered down at a stack to see Ben Franklin looking back at him. Both of his parents looked up at him, their eyes brimming with fright.
“Did you do this?” his dad demanded with a quivering voice.
“What?” Josh cried, frazzled. “What do you mean?”
“Did you do this!”
“I…I don’t know. I…guess. I mean, I wished for the money you guys need, but, but, that’s ridiculous. I mean…come on….I…”
“When! When did you wish!”
“Uh…just a moment ago while I was in the bathroom.”
“Did you draw anything before you wished it?”
“I…guess…I…on a tile…”
“Quiet! Don’t say it out loud! Don’t ever say it out loud!” Josh’s dad then looked at Josh’s mom and they shared a look filled with so much terror, so much fear, so much desperation, that Josh thought they were going to break into tears.
And then Josh’s dad snapped back around and stared at him. “Fill a bag with whatever you want to keep from your room. We must leave now!”