“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Neale Donald Walsch
July 23, 2007
Lucca shook his head wistfully, glancing around the busy airport terminal. He had wanted to wear the casual clothes he usually wore, but his father insisted on western attire, claiming it would be more appropriate for an Atlanta-bound man. He was dressed in grey flannel trousers, a white shirt, and a bottle green blazer that stuck to his skin.
“Manges bien et fais attention. (Eat well and be safe),” Janet whispered, tugging at his shirt sleeve.
“I will,” he nodded, turning his face to her as she adjusted his collar and the specs he had on – it needed no tweaking but she did it out of habit. He hugged her tightly so that her hair brushed across his face and the coral necklace she wore clinked against his blazer button. It took him back to his childhood days, when he was afraid of thunder and lightning and would rush to his mother’s arms to bury himself in the reassuring scent of her rose perfume. He squeezed her again before Alberto called him away.
Lucca held out his hands expecting his father’s handshake and was surprised when Alberto pulled him closer and embraced him instead. The last time they’d embraced was on New Year’s Day as was their norm.
Lucca was the first one to break the hug and the two men stood in their spots, staring at each other, not knowing what to say next.
“It’s what you want. Ensure you make us proud,” Alberto said as Janet drew closer to him and held his hands. Lucca turned towards the lift that’d just arrived at their floor, holding onto the large canvas bag that hung from his shoulder. Janet had assured him that in it was all that he needed for the voyage, including a change of clothes and a map of Atlanta.
“Call me as soon as you land,” his father called.
“Alright dad.” Lucca glanced back at his father as he stepped in and the doors shut. He waited for his father to shout one last instruction, but it never came.
August 19, 2007
Lake Placid Dr NE, Atlanta, GA, USA
Today makes it the twenty-seventh day since I left home. Atlanta hasn’t been very different from what I had read or expected, except the cost of living and education. I can’t afford to eat at restaurants anymore as I have nearly exhausted all the money I had with me. This place is uncomfortably hot. Every day, while I walk down to university, I fear I might get sunburnt. Most of the clothes I brought here have been useless, thanks to the weather.
Apart from my co-dwellers in the accommodation I’m staying at, I don’t actually have any friend in the university yet. It is quite normal since I’ve always been an F when it comes to social life. Hopefully, soon there will be changes.
Lucca closed the diary and dropped it in the smallest pocket of his bag. He rested his head on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. He hadn’t had good times in Atlanta yet. Perhaps, the best of those when he was still in the hotel he’d lodged in, when he first arrived. If he had known how tough life in Atlanta would get, he would have probably checked himself into a cheaper hotel and spent lesser days there. It was when he was returning home from school one day, nearly broke, that he noticed a poster advertising for a shared accommodation with some other boys for the cost of a hundred dollars a fortnight. He’d moved in the very next day. His roommates were also teenagers like him though none of them were students at his university. Most of the boys were still at high school while three of them worked part time, at different places. Aside from a few cursory greetings, he never really spoke to them. Partly because Lucca was proud, partly because he was an only child and was never truly comfortable interacting with anyone apart from his parents.
Homesick, Lucca thought of calling his mother to tell her how he was faring. But he rubbished the idea immediately. He was in Atlanta because he wanted to be here - far from home. He wanted to see the world - the one he couldn’t see from the duplex he lived in, at Grenoble. He checked his phone for the time and set an alarm for the following morning.
Lucca woke up and finished his typical routine of brushing his teeth and showering.
Then, he prepared his morning boost, his cup of tea – something he was addicted to. Sadly, his teas were never as tasty as the ones his mom made.
Putting on a deep blue linen shirt, a white cotton sport-coat and seersucker trousers, he picked up his leather bag and flung it across his shoulders. He had almost left the room, before stepping back in to take his specs – his signature dress - which he’d dropped on the bedside table before falling asleep last night.
“How’re you doing?” Lucca said to Tony as he walked out of the jam-packed room filled with boys.
Tony was one of the guys who worked part-time, and the only resident in the accommodation apart from Lucca who was not an American citizen.
He hailed from England, made quite obvious by his thick British accent. Every other roommate could afford to wake up late, but that wasn’t the case with Tony. His job at the mini mart started early, and he had to be up by 7am for it.
August 20, 2007
Atlanta, GA, USA
Georgia State University
As Lucca got to the university, he headed for his class immediately and sat down at a seat in the front row, waiting for the lecturer who would be talking to them on Foot printing and Reconnaissance. Sitting at the front had been a habit of his since elementary school as he believed that the closer one sat to the front, the better they stood a chance of understanding the subject taught. He brought out his earpiece and played his favorite song – Marly-Gomont.
As the lectures went on, Lucca was pretty disappointed with what he heard. He had expected a more advanced topic on Foot printing – instead, the teacher was still lecturing on subjects he had taught himself four years back. Bored, he watched on, while other students continued asking the tutor questions that he found annoying.
“Who doesn’t know how to get information about a domain name?” he shrugged, as the question came up. Professor Gary, the course lecturer had posed the question to the class. With an air of confidence and sure of what he had to say, Lucca stood up and started talking.
“Certain websites have been created for the purpose…”
A string of chuckles from the other students in class pissed him off and he abruptly stopped. It was his accent that amused them. Lucca had been having difficulties communicating in English, especially with the pronunciation of certain words. “It would have been better if I stayed mute,” Lucca said to himself when he noticed Professor Gray joining them too. Feeling rather uncomfortable, he sat down, disappointed.
The person sitting next to him whispered, “It’s CER-TAIN” before bursting out into sniggers again. Not responding to him, Lucca turned ahead to face the lecturer and remained that way till the end of the hour. He left for home immediately after the class ended.
Two weeks passed and Lucca landed himself a job at a restaurant. He had followed Tony to his work place, when he spotted an ad for a dishwasher at a restaurant opposite the minimart. He proceeded inside the restaurant and met with the owner, a plump woman in her late fifties. She dropped several rules before finally letting him know what she’d offer as salary. He’d laughed at first, contemplating how he could possibly get by with such a meager sum.
“You could leave if you want to. Other job seekers would come soon,” the woman said to Lucca. Recognizing that the woman was serious, and not wanting to miss this chance to earn whatever money he could, he asked the woman to increase the salary. They both reached an agreement when the woman finally added $70 to the $1,150 she proposed earlier. Lucca couldn’t argue with that. He left the restaurant and started working from the following weekend.
Lucca worked hard at the restaurant. He was aware of his language issues, so he had to do his work well to avoid a need for any interaction or explanation.
The salary wasn’t sufficient but he always remembered the saying - “half a loaf is better than no bread.”
He would rather wash dishes at the restaurant and earn something than simply sit at home and read the old books he’d brought from France. There were days his boss would commend him on his hard work and tip him with free food - but it was something that rarely happened.
During one of his lonely nights, Lucca was absorbed in a few grim thoughts, pondering on ways to earn some extra income, when the idea of setting up an online business - a freelancing job – dawned on him. He hoped to make some money through his phone, once the restaurant closed at night. However, after two weeks of starting his online business, Lucca was yet to receive any offers from clients. All of his requests were declined since he couldn’t gain their confidence as a new seller. Shortly, he gave up on his quest for additional income and resorted to managing the money he received from the restaurant. Little did he know that he was about to smile soon enough.
A few days later, when he was heading out of the kitchen at the end of his duty, he heard a group seated at a corner murmuring about phones, computers and electronic gadgets. Lucca had planned on buying a computer to aid his school assignments, but couldn’t purchase one so far since they were expensive – even the second-hand ones. His plan was to set aside a portion of his salary and hopefully, in about three months’ time, he would have enough to buy one without leaving him broke. So, when he overheard a group discussing about electronic deals, he was fascinated, hoping he would be able to get one at a cheaper rate. He went closer to their table and eavesdropped on the conversation. It was then that he got the whole picture. They were, in fact, thieves who were busy debating on whom to sell their stolen goods to.
As Lucca listened on, he began reasoning with himself, wondering whether he could make money through this channel. He clearly wouldn’t start stealing, but somehow, he saw an opportunity in this venture that he could explore. Then, an idea struck him. Lucca knew the gang wouldn’t be able to garner a high price for the merchandize as they probably lacked the expertise to know its worth and would dispose it for random sums to get rid of the stolen goods. With the knowledge he had, he would be able to fetch a better price if he could erase all of the data on the gadgets and upgrade them to a different, better model. This was his best chance yet to be successful and live a more comfortable life.
As the gang finished and was about to leave, Lucca approached them, requesting that they hear him out since he had an offer to make.
The gang ignored him and went their way. Lucca wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip past, so he pursued them and reminded them again that the ideas he wanted to tell them about, were very promising.
Angered, the gang members turned to face him - one of whom grabbed Lucca by the neck and asked him what he wanted.
“I can’t speak if you continue to hold my neck,” Lucca gasped, struggling to let himself loose.
“Let him go,” ordered a burly gang-member, Arnold, who had rough hair and a long beard coupled with a set of dirty broken teeth.
Lucca coughed as he tried to find his breath and reposition his specs. “I’m Lucca,” he introduced himself, stretching a hand out to greet Arnold – a gesture that was clearly unappreciated. He offered a handshake to the remaining men, but they glared on, refusing to shake hands with him.
“What exactly do you have to say?” Arnold growled. “You definitely didn’t stop us to exchange handshakes,” he added.
Lucca refused to feel intimidated and told them of his intent. “I want to start buying the products you have stolen.”
Immediately, the most muscular of the gang members seized his collar. “Where did you get that information from?” Lucca grew frightened as other members took turns, questioning him with harsh stares. He then told them that he had listened to their conversation while they were at his restaurant. The man finally released Lucca and joined his crew as they turned to leave. They had heard what he wanted to say but they weren’t interested. Lucca tried pursuing them but he eventually gave up the chase when it became clear they weren’t going to indulge him.
After that fateful day, Lucca never saw them again, despite his continuous efforts to try and track them down. Lucca started staying back at work a little longer, hoping the gang would come by - but it was to no avail. He also visited the area where he had pursued them many times, but couldn’t find anything there. He asked Tony about them, without giving out all details of who they truly were. But Tony knew nothing. Apparently, no one knew anything about them. Regardless, Lucca didn’t want to lose hope yet on this looming opportunity, so he kept looking around in case he would come across the gang again one day.
On one sunny afternoon, after Lucca had finished with his lectures and was making his way home, a brown car breezed past him. He stepped back and cursed at the driver who took off without an apology. When Lucca stole another look at the driver’s seat, he saw a familiar face behind the wheel. It was the gang member who’d held him by his collar outside the restaurant.
“That must be them,” Lucca thought as he started running after the vehicle.
As Lucca kept up his chase, he dropped the shoulder bag that was hindering his pace. Lucca ran as fast as he could, but he definitely wouldn’t outrun a moving car. “BNE2065”, he said as he stopped running and sat down beside the road, panting.
He had managed to get the plate number – he could probably use it to reach them. After catching up on his breath, he reached for his bag, took out a pen and wrote the number at the back of one of his notes.
“They can’t hide any longer,” Lucca began walking home with a smile, proud of himself.
At home, he began pondering on ways that he could use the plate number to get this crew. All he knew was the brown color of the car and the plate number. He had first thought of going to the department of motor vehicles to run a license plate check-up. But as he mulled on it, he saw that he had no good reason to want that sort of information from someone’s license plate number. Soon, it became clear that the number wasn’t useful at all. The car-chase attempt was just another waste of time. Lucca was back to square one once again. He scribbled over the jotted plate number and closed his book. “Argh!” Lucca shouted as he slammed his head against the bed.
Weeks passed. Lucca had nearly given up on his obsession to get hold of the gang. The brown car was not to be seen again, and he continued to keep himself busy at the restaurant, making sure he delivered as expected. Little by little, Lucca got used to crowds and the restaurant’s customers. His conversations with them grew longer than just hasty good mornings and welcomes. So much so, one of their regulars asked him if he had any African roots.
“Not at all,” Lucca frowned.
“It’s believed that people from Africa have a tendency to greet strangers warmly,” explained the potbellied man with an earring on his right ear and tattoos all over his arms. “Are you really sure you don’t have any bloodline linking you to Africa?”
“I’m quite sure,” Lucca corrected the man with a semi-annoyed smirk, on his way out.
October 06, 2007
Roswell Rd, Atlanta, GA
Lucca stopped by at the minimart, to check if Tony was still around so they could walk home together. As he entered the store, he spotted two of the gang members by the shelves, grabbing some items. Lucca quickly left the store and went outside, to wait for them.
When they eventually stepped out, one of them made a call and Lucca could figure out that they were speaking to another member. He guessed they were planning to meet at the front of the minimart. Lucca inched closer to them.
“You again?” One of the gang members shouted, turning to confront him. The alarm caused the other members to follow suit, with all of them soon glaring down at him.
Lucca was more determined this time and reassured them once again. “You can trust me. I mean no harm. I’m just trying to increase my revenue and I think dealing with you would help me achieve that.” The gang members scowled at the boy who was addressing them with not a hint of terror on his face.
Then, they shifted their attention away from him, like he was invisible.
With a sigh, Lucca increased the stakes by going around, and facing the two men directly. “Sell your items to me,” he demanded. One of the gang members immediately put his hands across his mouth ordering him to shut up. “Anybody could hear you, fool,” he warned before removing his hands from Lucca’s mouth slowly. They didn’t say anything further, while Lucca continued to stand beside them, in silence.
Soon, a brown car soon stopped in front of them and Lucca was sure it belonged to the gang. As the two members went ahead, towards the vehicle, Lucca also trailed along like he was one of them.
A stocky man, who responded to the name George stepped out of the car. “Who is this new boy?” he asked, pointing to Lucca.
“He’s the one from the restaurant,” Arnold explained as he emerged from the vehicle and walked to where Lucca was.
“You seem to know an awful lot about us. Who are you?” He squared shoulders against the boy, maintaining a very stern look.
Lucca flinched at the sight of Arnold as his dirty teeth shone underneath the halo of the light coming from a street-lamp behind the car.
“I’m erm erm….” he stammered when the voice of Arnold bellowed by his ears again, louder and scarier than it’d sounded before. His parched throat could barely utter his name just then. “I’m Lucca.”
“Lucca, don’t ever try finding us again. If you do, you will have only yourself to blame,” Arnold grabbed Lucca by the neck and lifted him up, mid-air, before dropping him on the ground and walking back towards the car waiting for him.
“BNE2065,” Lucca yelled as the car was about to start. Immediately, all four doors of the car whipped open and the gang members stormed out of the vehicle.
“I know what I can do with that plate number. I know that the police have been wanting to get hold of you for some time now. I can assist them in their pursuit. If you won’t be my ally, you can as well be my foe.” Lucca blurted, nursing his neck that was still aching from how Arnold had grabbed at it. The gang glanced at each other in shock, well aware of what could happen to them if the boy actually revealed anything concerning the plate number.
A few stunned seconds later, George walked down to where Lucca stood, and put both hands on the boy’s shoulder.
“You might be really smart, but you’re also very foolish,” he smiled. “You think having our plate number would be enough to put us behind bars? Did you care to think that if we got rid of you, all would be well and good for us?” George laughed gently showcasing a perfectly white set of teeth. Hearing those words was the first time Lucca felt true terror. He was going to apologize and dash off, but George held him by his elbow. “Let’s go.”
Lucca got into the car and they drove away. They stopped at an old bungalow and all the gang members alighted from their seats. Without awaiting any instructions, Lucca took the cue and got off the car. He looked around - there was no house nearby. “They’ve chosen their spot perfectly,” Lucca thought, following them as they gathered at the porch of the house. The entrance was full of cobwebs. Once the door opened, the interiors of the house weren’t very different either, with peeling paint and grimy floors. Lucca strolled around, viewing many of the old artefacts displayed in the house - including a sand clock, a radio and several framed paintings on the wall. As Lucca made his way further into the house, the gang member he’d met at the minimart held him back, “who gave you permission to move around?”
Lucca apologized and stood still.
Arnold then sauntered over and asked him more questions – enquiring who he was and where he had come from. The interrogation gave Lucca the faintest hope that they were probably giving his offer a thought. However, the expression on Arnold’s features was so menacing, it was enough to penetrate fear into anyone at the receiving end. Lucca answered the questions, his feet steadily retreating backwards as the thug kept looming closer. At some point, he got unlucky and his back hit a wall. It was then that Lucca talked himself into regaining his composure and smiled at the man.
Arnold tilted his head by a bit and looked straight into Lucca’s eyes. Then, he removed the specs from Lucca’s face and continued concentrating on the eyeballs.
“What?” Lucca jested, “I only have two eyes, like all others.”
“He isn’t lying.” Arnold finally declared, and walked away after handing Lucca his specs. The remaining gang members were already seated and George was at their midst, smoking something that Lucca perceived to be marijuana.
“Does he think he is a shaman?” Lucca muttered with a chuckle. When he realized he had actually said the words aloud, he held his lips together with his hands.
“Have we sold the last set of items we got, Hank?” George pitched the muscular gang-member a dry look. Without any reply, Hank stood up, cracked his fingers and disappeared into a dark corridor.
He returned carrying a large wooden box that he dropped on the table. “That’s what we have left,” he grunted, before returning to his seat. Lucca went over to take a peek of its contents but the voice that roared to him from behind, instantly pulled him back, several steps away from the table.
George casually stood up and strolled around the table, peeping at the items in it. Then, he called Lucca closer and put his arms across his shoulders. He removed the marijuana from his mouth and passed it over. Lucca refused by waving off the marijuana fumes from his nose, causing the whole gang to break out into a laugh - with the exception of Arnold, of course. George then dropped the marijuana pipe on the table and removed the contents from within the box, one after another. In it, were phones, laptops, wristwatches and bracelets of gold and silver.
Lucca’s jaw dropped agape as he watched the unfolding scene. He wanted to touch one of the phones he admired but as his hand stretched out, George caught it midway. “Payment comes first.” He snarled.
Lucca calculated the cash in his pockets that amounted to nothing more than a few dollars; he’d only received his salary for about two months. Lucca then fished out his phone and asked George for an account number into which he could transfer the payment to.
“What?” The gang members burst into another bout of laughter - this time, even Arnold had joined them.
George returned his arm to Lucca’s shoulder with a wry smile. “I don’t think you’re ready to strike a deal with us. We don’t deal with banks and accounts here. You bring us cash; we will give you what you want.”
“Can you leave now?” Arnold quipped as he stood up from his chair and went towards a refrigerator in the room. Lucca observed all of their faces and they seemed to share the same sentiment, wanting him to “GET OUT”.
Shortly, two of the gang members were escorting Lucca out of the building with force.
“I will be back tomorrow morning! I will be back tomorrow!!!” Lucca grunted as the guys pushed him out of the door. “How am I supposed to get a bus?” Lucca looked around – there was no sign of any vehicle except the car they had arrived in.
One of the men that had followed him outside, pointed across the street, “You’ll see a bus stop after crossing that point.” Lucca jumped up, wondering if there really was a bus stop.
From where he stood, he saw nothing. “Get there first.” The man shouted, aware of what the boy was trying to do.
Lucca began dashing across the street, out of their presence – but not before he’d turned back, one last time, to remind them, “tomorrow morning.”
By the time Lucca reached his accommodation, it was quite late and all his roommates were already home, awaiting his arrival. He entered the living room and was met with the worried look on Tony’s face.
“I thought you would come over to minimart and we’d leave together. But you didn’t come. I then went to your restaurant, and I was told you had left a while go. I rang your number several times, but you weren’t answering your calls.” Tony frowned. Lucca flipped out his phone and spotted the eight missed calls - puzzling since he had his phone with him throughout. However, not wanting to alarm them or have the matter dragged out, he came up with a quick excuse, “I’d gone to visit a friend who lives a few miles away from town… came to know he’s fallen sick.”
“I never knew you had any friend living outside town, since you’ve never mentioned one - but I hope he’s better now.” Tony nodded as he began walking towards his bed.
“Absolutely. He’s even able to eat a few morsels now,” Lucca lied, dragging himself into his bedroom. His body was exhausted from the day’s exertion, but his mind was busy plotting ways in which he could withdraw the money. He asked Tony if he had cash at hand. “Nope,” Tony shook his head, “everything I have is in my bank account.” Thankfully, Tony didn’t press on, asking his roommate why he needed the money.
Lucca showered and slipped into a pair of pajamas. As he brought out his diary and pen, he had no idea how the next day would go.
I guess luck paid me a visit today.
I finally found…
Those were the only words he managed to have written, before he dozed off, with his specs still on, and the pen lolling in his hand. It had really been a long day!
Lucca woke up the next morning, earlier than he’d ever woken up since his arrival at Georgia. He opened his eyes and was surprised to find himself sleeping at his desk. Lucca tapped his head, trying to recollect how the last night had ended. He closed his diary and placed it inside his bag, followed by the pen. Hurriedly brushing his teeth, he took his bath and came out of the bathroom with a towel tied around his waist.
He looked at the wall clock – it was barely ten minutes since he’d woken up. He changed into a sleeveless shirt and a pair of trousers that failed to reach his feet. Picking up his specs from his bed, he put it on, smiling at his reflection in the mirror.
Lucca left home and jogged down to the automated teller machine to withdraw the sum in his account. There was no one out in the street yet, and by the time he’d arrived at the ATM, a short while later, he was panting for breath. He withdrew whatever he had left in his account, and counted the notes again, reassured that the transaction was complete.
Sliding the cash into his wallet, he ran to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus headed for the area where the gang had taken him.
As he took his seat, he wondered if the gang members would be up yet. “Bah, I’ll wake them up, if they aren’t awake by the time I get there,” he scoffed.
Lucca started pondering about the potential market that he would be selling his upgraded items to, as he had no contacts in the field.
He made up his mind to ask Tony about it, and then gazed out the window, enjoying the rest of the serene journey.
When the bus rolled into the stop, Lucca got off and ran down to the familiar bungalow. As he approached the door, he noticed two of the gang members standing outside with a big bag. Lucca went closer to them and stretched his palm hoping they would share a handshake. But after about seven seconds of having his palm hanging in the air - his gesture unreciprocated - he dropped his hand to his sides.
“You’re late, boy,” one of the gang members grumbled glimpsing at his wristwatch.
Lucca frowned. Why was the man insinuating that he was late, when they’d never given him a specific time for a meeting? And to think that he’d been fretting about being too early!
“I’m sorry,” Lucca apologized as he wasn’t sure of what to say next. He brought out the money and gave it to them.
The man counted the money and grinned at his partner, nodding his head in affirmation. Turning towards the boy, he finally handed over his bag. Lucca opened it, ecstatically reviewing its contents. He was quite satisfied with what he got to see. Closing the bag, he flung it across his shoulders.
“Arrivederci (Goodbye).” Lucca shouted as he paced down the road towards the bus stop.
At home, Lucca wiped away the data from the stolen devices and cleaned them so they would resemble a new phone. He changed the casing of those that showed signs of wear and tear. On the weekends, he went to the market and sold the items at prices that brought him more than forty percent returns. Lucca was overjoyed with the stroke of good luck that’d come his way. His efforts had finally paid off. By the next deal, he made sure he was the one who got hold of all the gang’s stolen merchandize by increasing the amount he paid for each one. Soon, he became George’s favorite buyer. After nearly two months of nights and weekends devoted to refurbishing swiped laptops and phones, Lucca was able to quit his work at the restaurant.
He moved out of the shared accommodation to a new apartment he’d secured in Peachtree Dr NE. And once he bought his first car, Lucca was to become an entirely new person.