To Marcus, the bronze sign seemed less like instructions, and more like a challenge. He often confused the two. In fact, it had been an alleged misinterpretation of the rules that had netted him the day off from school. Not surprisingly Marcus had seized the opportunity to shadow the buses on their field trip to the aquarium. As painful as a mandated excursion with Roosevelt Elementary School could be, it was equally awesome to be present free from their jurisdiction. Honestly, could anything be better than watching as his fellow students shuffled from one exhibit to the next at precise twenty minute intervals while he stood on his perch at the big tank railing and attempted his best Cheshire cat smile?
He had found himself sufficiently distracted by his toiling cohorts until a sneeze had forced his gaze downward, where the brass sign was bolted firmly to the lip of the safety railing. Marcus read the proclamation:
Please do not throw any change or other refuse into this tank. Our aquatic residents appreciate your consideration.
Almost without thinking, his hand was in his jeans. A copious jangle of change sifted through his fingers. Without a ride, Marcus had braved two and a half buses to get to the aquarium. He read the sports section of a discarded paper, less interested in the final scores than the blotchy pictures of athletic prowess. Before leaving for the stop several blocks from his house, a quarter raid was performed on his father’s left sock drawer. The right sock drawer held treasures too, but not the kind you could spend. Items extracted from the right had found themselves the center of attention during many a lunch period. Condom balloons became a frequent 5th period occurrence until one kid went to the nurse after eating a peppermint flavored specimen. The left drawer was a guaranteed coin mine, a veritable breeding ground for quarters and dimes.
Marcus separated a nickel from a tuft of lint and held it over the shark tank. It was so easy to disobey; the joy of it was somewhat distasteful. The point wasn’t to actually sink some silver into the still waters below, but to upset someone by doing so. For the briefest of moments, Marcus wished he hadn’t been suspended. If the whole class were surrounding him, he’d get as big a reaction as he could hope for. Peter would do his weird snot laugh that always ended with him coughing. Ellen and Alexa would probably squeal and then suck down the last sips of their mothers’ peppermint lattes. It would be the chief subject of conversation for the day, maybe even the week. But the class had moved on to the walls stacked high with minnows and phosphorescent guppies.
“Don’t do it,” said a tiny voice.
Marcus hadn’t noticed the small girl approach him. She couldn’t be more than four years old, yet she didn’t seem to have any guardian with her. Her hair was frizzy, like someone had just rubbed a balloon up and down her head. A pattern of freckles rushed from her ears to her nose, detouring across her cheeks in the process.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Marcus offered, rather unconvincingly.
“Sure you were. You were throwing a coin into that shark tank. Don’t.”
He raised himself out of his perpetual slouch to his full height, and choking his eyes and voice with disdain, queried if she, little thing that she was, planned to stop him.
He waited for some kind of further answer, but the girl chose to stare off towards a wing of the building Marcus had yet to investigate. He was disturbed by her conviction. Never in his eight years terrorizing suburbia had anyone so definitively told him he couldn’t do a certain thing. For a moment it stopped him, but just as quickly he was irate, and seizing on the momentum of his own anger, he pulled back his arm, rendering his appendage a slingshot, and sought an appropriate target to aim for.
A couple heads turned, but the immediate assumption was that Marcus was the girl’s big brother, and as such, was teasing or tormenting her. The adults resumed their respective tasks, relieved to not be relied upon to inflict authority upon a young stranger.
“What is your problem?” he snarled under his breath.
“It’s the wrong target,” she whispered.
She reached up on her toes so she could whisper in his ear.
“It’s the wrong target. We only get one chance. Don’t waste it on this.”
Slightly bewildered, but recognizing a fellow troublemaker when he heard one, Marcus followed the girl as she guided him towards the annex he had yet to see. They passed the long glass coffin of a deceased hammerhead you could poke at with gloved fingers, then a full wall-to-ceiling display of a school of cod incessantly circling their confines. Finally she led him to an elevator.
“Brilliant,” he whined. “You’re leading me out of this entire stupid place.”
He slid down the elevator’s door in defeat.
Without a glance in Marcus’s direction, the girl pushed the UP button and stepped over him when the doors dropped his weight. He scooted his butt and legs inside the box and rode the several floor journey to the top without righting himself. When he finally stood, he saw the girl’s intentions.
The rooftop garden was small, stuffed between office annexes and supply rooms. A thick glass door led them outside, where the planter boxes hid them well from the unsuspecting hordes of aquarium, visitors eating lunch below.
“My mom works here,” explained the girl. “I can’t get away with anything on the main floor. But here,” she interrupted herself to hurl a penny beyond the planter box and onto the back of a lunching man. “I own here.”
Marcus grabbed a handful of change. He let the metal sting his palm, then sent a shower of copper and silver raining over the picnic tables.
Due to time constraints, these 1,000 words were written by Zack Ruskin – Believer Magazine intern, short story collection author, and overall good guy. Thanks, Zack!