Matt opened his father’s drawer. Within lay a large pile of phone, water, and electric bills. One after the other they read “late” or “unpaid.” Next to them, there was a small pile of grocery coupons that was being rapidly depleted. Wrong drawer, he thought. I’ll try the bottom one.
As Matt opened it, the bottom drawer creaked loudly and released a musty smell. Matt chuckled. Good thing Dad’s at the factory, he thought. He thinks I’m working. Why work myself when he can do it? In the drawer, a small jar full of small bills was carefully laid to the side. A small label on it said, “Rent Money.” It held about 400 dollars. Next to it, a piece of paper read, “February Rent: $500.” Matt reached into the jar and took a twenty-dollar bill. Finally, he thought, I found it.
As Matt left the two-room apartment, he saw a notice on the door.
“Whoa,” he gasped, his eye wide in disbelief. “They raised all the rents in Queens. Well, Dad can pay it. He’s got five days.” Matt closed the door and ran upstairs to talk to Jose and Nick, who were twins and his best friends.
He knocked softly on their dark brown door. After a few seconds, Jose answered. He had blue eyes and a mop of dark brown hair. He towered over Matt, who was fairly tall himself.
“’S’up?” Jose asked, his usual conversation starter. “Nick is testing his slingshot on our door. Come in.” Unlike Matt’s family, Jose and Nick had money. The brothers didn’t even have to share a room! Matt thought they were very lucky. The three boys gathered in Nick’s room. Matt looked at the walls. These posters are so nice, Matt thought. I wish I had them.
“So?” Nick questioned eagerly. “Why’d you come? It’s kind of late.”
Matt gave them a smug smile. “Well,” he began, “I got twenty bucks, and they’re selling those extra-large exploding poppers at the deli at five dollars for ten poppers. We can get forty of them with my money and shoot people with our slingshots!” They all laughed. Slingshots were their hobby, and they loved to hit people with cheap, store-bought explosives.
“But where’d you get the money?” asked Jose. “You usually have to borrow, and your dad works ten hours at the factory. Did you steal it?”
“Nah,” Matt lied. “It was his present to me.” But in his head, he felt a little guilty. Whatever, he thought. We’ll pay rent fine. I do this all the time, and Dad doesn’t care. He did say I needed to get a job, but why should I? “Now then, I’m going to buy a pack of poppers, all right?” They nodded excitedly and told him to hurry up.
Matt ran out of the twins’ apartment and hurtled down the stairs. He opened the glass building door and made a dash for the small deli. Its yellow sign was beaten and torn.
“Hi, Matt,” said Carlos, the clerk. “I don’t see you too often. What are you here for? You rarely have money to spend.” The small man smiled warmly.
Matt grabbed a pack of poppers. “I’ll take these,” he said hurriedly. Matt paid quickly and zoomed back out of the store.
“Kids these day,” Carlos sighed. “No way I was this rowdy back when I was thirteen. I was already working.” He laughed to himself. I wonder how he got money, Carlos wondered.
As Matt ran toward the apartment, he saw his dad coming home from the large factory. Odd, he thought, they must’ve closed the factory early today. When he saw his father coming closer, he immediately stuffed the large, white poppers and the leftover money into his backpack. He saw that his father had a very grave expression on his face, but that happened fairly often.
“Hello, son,” he said, “I’m glad that I have found you. Did you find a job?”
“No,” Matt replied, “I didn’t.” He did not mention what he had done instead.
“Ugh,” his father muttered. “I’ve come home because the factory closed, and they cut the day’s pay. We’re struggling enough as it is. So, Matt, where are you going?”
“Oh,” said Matt, startled at the question. Think fast, he thought, think fast. “Just to visit Jose and Nick. I haven’t seen them in a while.”
“OK,” Matt’s father replied. “Be home by eight o’clock for dinner. I’m going to go do some work for Carlos.” His father walked off towards Carlos’s deli.
He’s finally gone! thought Matt, very relieved. He hurried back to the build ing and showed Jose and Nick the poppers. Pop! They all laughed as they tested one out. Matt’s financial worries began to wash away.
“We should totally get more of these and shoot them at people!” Nick exclaimed. “ I’d love to see the look on Principal Walton’s face. It would be priceless.” The boys chuckled at the thought of scaring their hated principal.
“OK, but after school tomorrow,” Matt said. “I have to go home.” They exchanged goodbyes, and Matt went back to his apartment. Man, he thought wistfully. I wish we lived there. When he walked in, his father had a very worried look on his face. He was leafing through bills and looking at his most recent paycheck.
“Matt,” he said, “sit down, I need to talk to you.” He handed him a microwave dinner. “The landlord has raised our rent by fifty dollars, and…” Matt faked surprise, breathing out sharply. But in the back of his head, he felt a pang of guilt and worry. “Yes,” his father continued. “I’ve done the math, and we can’t pay it. If that happens, we will be evicted from the building after three days’ time. That is why I need you to start working and earning some money. I’m sure you could get a job from Carlos. Together, I think that we can do this. So, Matt, do you understand?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Matt said in a bored tone, “I’ll ask Carlos after school.” But in his head, Matt was thinking otherwise. Do I really care? Our landlord, Joe, is really nice. He wouldn’t do that. I’ll just hang out with Jose and Nick again. I can fake working and give him some of the cash that I stole. I am a bit scared, but Dad will do it. Why would I actually work? Like a wolf, Matt scarfed down his dinner and then went to his room.
“Get some sleep!” his dad called. “Carlos works you hard.”
The next day after school, Matt did not have any work to do at home. Yes! He thought to himself. I can go to Jose and Nick. They will be done with their homework, because they get dismissed earlier than me. He ran out to Jose and Nick’s place. Thump! Thump! He knocked on their door. Soon enough, it opened.
“Hey, guys!” he said happily. “Are you done with your homework?” Then he realized it was not Jose or Nick but their father, Mr. Cooper. “Oh. Hello, Mr. Cooper. Can I hang out with Jose and Nick?”
Mr. Cooper smiled. His teeth were very yellowed. “Certainly,” he said in his deep voice. “They’re in the back. Come in.” Matt walked into his friends’ apartment and went to the back, where their rooms were located.
“Hi, Matt!” Jose said happily. “We’ve decided that we are going to get Ms. Rzepcynski today. Man, I can’t wait to see her jump when she hears Boom! and white smoke goes everywhere. So, here’s our plan.” Jose opened up a drawer and pulled out some graph paper. “We’re going to sneak out in her yard,” he said as he pointed to a mark on the paper. “She goes on her terrace, and we hit her with the pop pers.” The three boys continued to talk about the plan and figured out every detail.
“OK, guys,” Matt said, “we’ve talked long enough. Let’s go!” The other two boys agreed. “Also, should we invite Marc? I know he is only eleven, but he is pretty cool.” Nick frowned in confusion.
“Haven’t you heard?” said Nick. “His family had late rent dues and didn’t pay. They were kicked out!” Matt’s face turned pale, his eyes bursting with astonishment.
“Whoa,” he gasped, “Joe actually did it.” But on the inside, Matt began to realize what that meant for him and his father. Oh my God, he thought, Joe is getting serious. If Dad can’t pay, we’re out! I am so stupid, stupid, stupid! He works hard for me, and I steal what he works for… have I actually been doing this?
“Jose,” Matt said. His lower lip trembled, and guilt spread across his face. He drooped with despair. “Nick. Maybe later. I just realized, I have to go. Bye!” He got up and ran out as fast as he could. Down the stairs, out the door, and into the deli. What if we can’t pay? he questioned himself. I’ll never get over it.
“Hey Carlos,” Matt panted, “I was wondering if I could… I don’t know, sweep up or something. Like a job, for money.” Carlos smiled.
“I’m glad you’ve come,” Carlos said. “You know, your dad’s having a hard time. I can pay you, say, seven dollars an hour. Start sweeping.” Matt took a broom and swept vigorously.
When Matt went home, he saw his dad on the beaten old couch, exhausted.
“Well, son?” his father asked. “I’m guessing you didn’t find a job.”
“Well,” said Matt, chuckling, “I worked for Carlos, and I got seventeen dollars. What do you think of that?” A smile spread across his father’s face that was wider than the Grand Canyon, and his face looked like the brilliant sun.
“That’s amazing!” he exclaimed. “Together, we can pay rent.” His eyes shined with joy.
“And Dad, one last thing,” Matt murmured, “I’m really, really sorry.” He lay fifteen dollars on the table. “I’ve been stealing.” He whimpered. “I’m so sorry, Dad.” He gave his father a hug and a meek smile.
“Matt,” his father said sternly, “I am very disappointed, but I am glad that you have confessed. Together, we won’t get kicked out. I don’t want to live in a shelter.” They laughed.
* * *
FOUR DAYS LATER
Matt opened his father’s bottom drawer. It creaked loudly. Within lay a jar with small bills, holding about 530 dollars. Next to it, a notice read, “February Rent: $550.” Matt put in his hand and dropped in a twenty-dollar bill. Finally, he thought. Done.