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Pawns (Adrian's Story)

Chapter 1: Sunglasses
Chapter 2: Concerning the 25 machine
Chapter 3: Lunch and finances
Chapter 4: The 24 hour convenience store, closed world, and the station
Chapter 5: Bargain
Chapter 6: Static
Chapter 7: City for the young
Chapter 8: Loose change
Chapter 9: Calm and tension after the storm

1: Sunglasses

            The station was filthy, but that was to be expected in a city with a population of this size. An amount of people put out a given amount of waste per person; when there weren't enough forces to clean up after them, the result was a dirty station, to say nothing for the rest of the grimy sprawl.
            To think that there were people that actually had to live on the filthy streets. Adrian leaned back in his chair and sighed, running his hand over his balding head. He was getting old, wasting his life away in a derelict pawnshop in a dilapidated strip mall across from the bustling station. It was getting dark, or maybe that was merely the smog-smoked glass playing tricks on his aging eyes again.
            He picked up his novel again. It was written by one R. Lee Harris, a prestigious literature author who had won several literature awards. The radio feed was broken by static, it was on a variety music channel which played things from the past few decades. That was what he liked, variety. The ceiling fan went round and round in an erratic, buzzing cycle.
            The chime on the door clinked against the glass as somebody entered. Adrian sat the novel down on the counter and looked at the new entry. A younger man with a shoddy beard, neatly dressed with a baseball cap on. The cap rather ruined the effect, Adrian thought. Perhaps he had just come from a game?
            "Looking for anything in particular?" Adrian stood up behind the counter, and prepared to come in front of the case, though there was hardly room for it in the already-cramped store.
            "I uh... I was wondering if you had any sunglasses." Sunglasses? That was a new one. "There might be a pair in the junk bin, up on the second to top shelf there. I doubt it though, we usually don't have stuff like that." The junk bin was a translucent plastic container. There was a piece of pink posterboard with "junk bin" written in Adrian's block-letter scrawl taped to the front. Inside were various odds and ends. And, evidently, a pair of cheap sunglasses.
            "How much?" The man looked them over casually. "50." The man grunted in acknowledgement, and tried the sunglasses on. Black plastic with reflective rainbow lenses, they looked rather silly. Went with the cap more than the clothes, Adrian mused. He was evidently pleased, because he placed the proper coins down on the counter and walked out without taking his receipt. Where was he in such a hurry to go to? Maybe his date was waiting somewhere, and he just couldn't meet her without the proper plastic sunglasses.
            Adrian sighed as the coins clinked in the drawer of the register, and ripped off the automatically-printed receipt from the adding-machine. The top copy (white copy), normally given to the customer, he tossed in the metal wastebasket in the corner by the door to the back (warehouse/living quarters). The yellow carbon-copy was spiked onto a metal skewer with the previous sales of the day, to be counted up and recorded later.
            He was not looking forward to that. The radio had a bout of static again. It was always in the middle of the songs he liked, too. It didn't matter anyways, because the train's loud whistles (letting off steam) made the effort of the music futile. He stretched, and sat back down. R. Lee Harris' novel was waiting as the crowd outside shuffled onto the loading platform to catch the train.


2: Concerning the 25 machine

            In the front of the pawnshop there was a 25 machine. It was thus named because one put in a 25 piece, turned the handle, and something would come out. This particular one was a model with three compartments. There was a metal top on each, a rectangular glass panel on the front, and the same red-painted metal covering the box-structure on the sides. The bottom was where all three of the boxes were connected together on a single metal shelf, which was in turn held up by a perpendicularly-placed metal pole in the center. At the bottom, there was another metal piece like the shelf. This was bolted to the floor.
            The left compartment was half-filled with square pieces of gum with hard candy coating of multiple flavors and colors. Adrian supposed they would stay good forever. It had been nearly a year and half since he had bothered filling it. Not many customers bothered with the gum, but out of those few none had gotten sick from eating it. If they had, they hadn't bothered to complain.
            The middle box was usually filled with toys in small plastic containers. Currently, there were rings made of cheap metal with translucent plastic "stones" set into them. These had been popular; there were only a few left. It was almost worth the effort required to individually place each ring into the plastic container. This did not sound like a daunting task, but when one considered the tedious business of snapping the lids shut sixty something times in a row...
            The right container sat empty. Adrian had not been able to think of anything to put in it. There was a crack in the glass from something, and he was wary of spending the money to put something edible into it in case the crack should defer customers from getting anything. Perhaps some sort of toy? But what, was the question.
            Adrian was deathly bored as he considered this. Having finished his novel in the late hours of the previous day (there had not been time to get a new one) he had almost nothing to do. Everything that could be had been polished, dusted, or shined up had been. Gum sounded good, then he really should work on the finances.
             Using a coin from the register, he received a small assortment of gum pieces. There were three orange, two peppermints, a spearmint, a banana, three cinnamons, one pink (he never had been sure what flavor the pink ones were). Best to eat the orange ones first. Popping those into his mouth, he pocketed the other ones.
            Before he got back to the desk, the door clinked. He turned around, pressing the gum to the roof of his mouth. "Anything I can help you with, ma'am?"
            The new arrivals were a middle-aged woman and a young girl. "I noticed your gumball machine here." Gumball machine? Oh, the 25 machine, he realized as she gestured to it. "Is it alright if I take a picture of it?" The girl was poking around at various things in the shop, the two pigtails her curly dark-brown hair was tied into bobbing as she moved. Cute kid.
            "A picture of the 25 machine? Go ahead. If I may ask what for?" The woman, who had the same dark hair and round face as her daughter, was rummaging through her purse for something. She produced an older-model digital camera.
            "Oh, I'm a pop culture expert. My name is Jean Harris." A pop culture expert? If only he had such an easy job... But he wouldn't give the pawnshop up for anything, he knew. The pawnshop was his life; job, income, and housing. He shook her hand firmly when she extended it. "My current project is a book on... 25 machines. Can you tell me the history behind the machine, and your shop?"
            "Well, the machine was already here with the property when I bought it. That was, oh... ten, twenty years back now. This used to be a barbershop, here. When I bought the place, I turned the back," he gestured to behind the counter, "into an apartment. That's where I live." He went on rambling for a while, and she wrote things down in a purple memo book. Her daughter was remarkably well behaved, thankfully. He had had experiences with children who... weren't. She seemed fascinated by the place and went on looking around all while they were talking.
            The finances would have to wait. There were pictures to be taken: of Adrian himself, of the shop (interior and exterior), and of the machine in question, and an interview to be given. "A lot of it wouldn't make it into the book, but it's always nice to have extra information," she told him. She seemed to be a practical woman. Also, there was a legal consent form to be filled out; you couldn't do anything without the proper legal form these days.
            No other customers came in to see what the fuss was about, to Adrian's disappointment. (The station seemed to draw all the focus of the area like a black hole- it was almost the color with its iron framework and grit. He had been told people came from around the country to see it and wondered why anyone would waste their time, but was thankful when tourists stopped by.)
            The woman apologized profusely over taking his time and his business, and thanked him readily for the information. They had spent a full 500 in the 25 machine (for research), and the girl had found a stuffed toy for another 200. After seeing them off, Adrian decided to close up for today. He turned off the neon sign in the door and headed back into his private quarters. It was a full hour and a half early before closing time, but if anybody desperately needed anything they could pound on the glass door until he heard them. He was ready to call it a day as he went over to the faucet and had a quick drink, then went to the couch for a nap.


3: Lunch and finances

            Lunch today was a pre-packaged salad; the lettuce was thin and not overly crunchy. He'd taken out the tomatoes, and added some egg, bacon-flavored bits, and croutons from a box. It still wasn't overly good, but the light Italian dressing helped. The salad was in a plastic bowl, a lime green one. That was one advantage of living in a pawnshop: One never ran out of dishes.
            He sat behind the counter as he ate. The finance book glared at him. He ignored it. It had been a slow day so far today- the only customer had been a teenage girl who got something out of the 25 machine, a ring (he was getting low on those now) who had seemed to disappear after leaving the store. Odd, but perfectly explainable, he was sure he had merely blinked and she zipped off somewhere out of his line of vision.
            The radio was on, as staticy and crackly as ever. Summer was slowly winding down, almost so slowly it wasn't noticeable, as the days drifted away lazily. It was getting to time for the new session of school to start. Well, not a new session per se since everywhere around had gone to all-year programs, the time when students advanced a level. New supplies would be needed; he would have to make his display of organizers and stationary more prominent.
            His store wasn't really a pawnshop since it was rare people came to turn things in for money. Those who did usually sold minor electronic devices; sometimes jewelry but not so often as precious metals were getting rarer. It was easier just to take them to a re-fashioner and get them in the newer styles, unless you needed the cash. There was talk about stopping production of metal money. What, then, would happen to the next generation without 25 machines?
            He was stalling. The finances needed to be done; it was almost the end of the month when his rent would come due. Utilities too. He had been eating in a lot lately, and as a result using the dishwasher probably more often than he should. But if he let the dirty dishes sit after he finished eating, they'd pile up... Better the dishes pile up than it to have it get so he can't pay the water bill though.
            Tomorrow was Saturday; the shop would be closed. Saturday was traditionally the day when all the denizens of the suburbs gathered their junk and set it out for sale on tables in their yard. Usually one could get deals on a lot of various things if one had the will to wake up early and stay out long- a typical Saturday consisted of going out from 6 to about noon or 1, then returning to appraise and price all of the new finds.
            All the better to do the finances now before he had all of the stuff tomorrow to worry about as well. He walked over and set the empty salad bowl on the kitchen counter in back, then went outside to check the mail. It wasn't here yet. He closed the lid on the black metal post box that was mounted on the brick wall of the storefront and went back in. Now, where had he put the gas bill and the water bill... The electricity bill and the trash pickup were already on the counter, by the phone.             No customers came in for the rest of the day. It figured, the time when he wanted an interruption he couldn't get one. With all the utilities (Shouldn't they be covered in the rent? What a rip-off...) and the rent together, he was almost a full 200 behind. He hadn't checked the 25 machine yet, but that would yield 5, 10 at most. He sighed as he turned the sign to ‘closed.’ The sun was setting, and he could see the colors behind the framework of the station.
            He stepped outside, breathed deeply, and coughed as the polluted air filled his lungs. The sunset was beautiful, even seen through the hazy atmosphere. Above, the sky was that bluish purple color one can only find at twilight, and the clouds were candy-pink. There was nobody on the sidewalk for a while either way, he seemed alone, even with the busy sounds of the crowd in the station. He went back inside, locked the door, and tried not to think about finances.


4: The 24 hour convenience store, closed world, and the station

            The alarm woke him up all too early on Saturday. He groaned and hit the snooze button to stop it and buy some time to actually wake up. Five minutes later, it went off again. Adrian gave up and sat up, turning it off properly this time. One morning routine later (change out of bed clothes, resist temptation to go back to sleep, drink a cold glass of water and wonder why he wasn't going back to sleep, wash up and shave), after taking a minute to locate his shoes and the keys to the shop, he was out on the sidewalk breathing in the cool morning air.
            His destination was the corner of the block, where there was a small convenience store and newspaper stand. He walked past the cleaners, which was still dark inside, and wondered where Telly was. After all it was almost... he had forgotten his watch. He knew there had been something he forgot.
            Reaching the convenience store, he walked inside. There were several displays of newspapers from around the city and books of various genres (he would have to check the book rack; he'd had trouble getting to sleep since finishing his last novel). There were dozens of shelves arranged neatly in aisles, with various food products and household items. Between this store and the cleaners' next door, Adrian only had to leave the strip mall for clothing that he could likely find at yard sales. That was really the only reason he did leave this comfortable little strip, and the reason he couldn't give up his Saturday routine.
            Let's see, he would need something for breakfast... a candy bar, with bittersweet chocolate, caramel, and peanuts; and a package of spearmint gum for later. Now, about those books. On the rack there was a mystery, two with spaceships on the covers that were by the same author, and one with a picture of an island on the cover. The rack creaked as he turned it to make the island book more accessible. Paradise by Edward Mundt. He glanced at the back and decided it would do, grabbing a copy of Saturday's edition of the newspaper as well.
            With his purchases in tow, he walked up to the counter. The clerk on duty today was Bryan, a teenager who had been recently hired. He seemed friendly enough, but he was quiet and reserved. As he totaled up the prices, he absently ran a hand through his short-cut mousy brown hair. "The total comes to 4 and 42." Adrian handed over the money, which was put into the register with a practiced, efficient motion. Bryan ripped off the receipt and put it into the brown paper bag with the rest of the items, then handed them to Adrian with a "Have a nice day."
            There were more people about now. Adrian checked his money supply; it was still sufficient for his customary automobile rental once he got off the train. All he carried was cash; he'd seen credit cards ruin many people. A lot of the things he took in nowadays were from such people in deep debt. He checked his watch. 7:12, about twenty minutes since the morning train then. After crossing the street at the crosswalk as was proper, he moved to wait in the queue of people waiting to get tickets.
            Since he'd invested in a Train Pass years ago, he had no need to pay for tickets. Pass or not, you were required to get a ticket to board the train. Some lawyer had probably thought that one up so you couldn't use being on the train at the time as an alibi without having a ticket stub as proof. Or maybe that sort of thing only happened in cheap crime novels; he wasn't sure.
            The line moved faster than he'd expected. The generic station worker of choice today was a glasses-wearing woman with dyed-blonde hair in the navy blue official station uniform. He showed her his pass, and she inspected it.
            "I'm sorry sir, but your pass is expired." Expired? That was new. "See, here on the sticker? The date was for last Tuesday." He was going to protest, but she had the fierce determination of a newly hired employee and he simply wasn't awake enough to deal with it.
            "How much does it cost to renew it?"
            "For one year, it's 50 and three is 100." Grudgingly, he brought out his wallet. The man behind him in line muttered something that sounded like the word senile to the next person, whom Adrian couldn't see. He didn't hear a response.
            Adrian counted out five 20-unit bills and handed them over. She had a sheet of stickers ready, and fixed a shiny new sticker onto the spot where the old one had been. "Here you go," she handed the card back to him.
            "Where are you off to today, then, sir?" Adrian looked at the card and returned it to his wallet, which he then put away back in his pants pocket. "North station, suburb side," he answered. She typed something onto her register, and it printed out a blue rectangular piece of paper. After she also handed that over, he checked it and it was correct.
            "Thanks," he said. "Have a nice ride," she replied, smiling. He looked at the new sticker again. Hm. Well, that had used up pretty much all of his funds for today. That was not good, because he wasn't sure how much he had left. He checked his watch. He had eight minutes left until the train came, so he had best be quick about finding out.


5: Bargain

            Saturday had been productive. After catching the train, he'd gone to the inner city- the suburban area. The train tracks were the barrier between the inner and outer cities, and the four major stations were the only way to cross between inner and outer. The tracks were a wall as sure as the great wall around the city itself was, and as sure as the wall between the inner city park (which was nearer the center than the suburbs, the next "ring" in, in fact) the and the walled city's nucleus- the Central Administrative District.
            There, he'd leased a car out from the agency from the afternoon. The car was a little white Hally Fiald hatchback from a decade or two ago, slightly dinged and battered but it worked and had the storage space, so he was fine. It wasn't like there were that many other cars around, people mostly got them just to haul stuff or they could take out a longer lease if they liked going out.
            He'd found some nice stuff: a few glass bottles of various colors and sizes, some journals and planners which were always good even though they sold rather cheap, and a few other odds and ends. In the end he didn't even need the car for hauling, but it made getting around a lot easier. He'd been able to carry his finds back to the shop after the ride back to the station- the location was convenient if nothing else.
            On Sunday afternoon, he was still pricing up his finds. The phone rang, a loud electronic trilling, and refused to stop until he picked it up. It irked him when the thing rang and interrupted his work.
            "Hello, pawnshop," he said with perhaps less enthusiasm than he should have. In the background there was a woman's muffled voice, but other than that, silence. "Hello?" The woman was insistent about something, but it was a young man who spoke.
            "Hello, yes, is this the pawnshop across from south station?" "Yes it is," Adrian replied. At least it was customers, instead of annoying telemarketers. "Do you have any- yes, what, oh, excuse me sir," then the phone went quiet and there was a muffled argument or giggling or static coming through from the other end. They were probably students, he decided. If this was some sort of prank, he would...
            "Sorry about that. I was calling to ask if you had any (what was it again), any electronic game consoles of any sort. Especially older ones. We're, er, collectors," the woman's voice burst out laughing. Adrian was annoyed almost to the point of anger, but tried to keep calm as he replied. "Yes, I believe we have a few right now. Would you like me to check which types?"
            "Oh, no, sir, that isn't necessary. We'll be by in a few minutes. Thank you." There was an abrupt click, and the line cut off. Adrian sighed and tried to get back to pricing things. Hadn't he picked up a few electronic game discs yesterday while he was out? Or had he passed them up... He bent down and rummaged, and came up with three discs in cases. Now, what was a good price for these? How about... 600. That seemed fair. He took off three more brightly colored round stickers and wrote 6 on them, then stuck them accordingly.
            Minutes later, the door chimed. Adrian looked up expectantly at the newcomers: a tall-ish male with glasses (rectangular frames? how odd) and a woman with dyed-red hair in a black tee shirt and jeans. They were definitely students, by the look of things. Pretty well off ones too, for there was a small silver car outside.
            "We were the ones that called about the electronic games a little while ago, can you please point us in their general direction?" Her voice was pretty, but it had a slight tone of condescension. It was probably nothing personal. The mass of red hair she had tied up in a ponytail on her head bobbed as she spoke.
            "Yes, they're over there in that bin, the bottom shelf there." She thanked him. At least they were polite. They treated the merchandise well too: the young man was looking around as the redhead dug through the game bin.
            She made a muffled noise of surprise and beckoned him over. Adrian watched with interest as there was a hushed conversation in what sounded like disbelieving tones. Maybe he'd been lenient on pricing?
            They put two of the cases back in the basket, but brought one up to the counter. There was a picture of a dragon on the front, and a title printed in a hard-to-read script that also said something about dragons. Hm. Interesting. It looked like the sort of fantasy books he used to read when he was a student. He really should try to dig some of those out again.
            Almost glowing, the redhead handed over the correct change. "I can't believe you had this here, I've been looking for it for ages! And priced so cheap, too!" Adrian smiled as he handed her the receipt. "Glad you found what you were looking for. I usually bring in new stock every Sunday. I can't guarantee I'll get more of these, but call and I'll tell you if I get some in."
            "Thanks," she said as she took the bag. "I'll try to remember to do that." They got into their car and drove away. Adrian watched. Yes, he would definately have to dig out some of his old fantasy novels. He'd almost finished the book he bought yesterday. It was decent, but he was getting tired of the same old real-life novels.
            Almost as an afterthought, he pulled two more stickers off the sheet, and wrote 750 on each of them. After removing the old stickers as best he could, he affixed the new ones in place. Yes, electronic games like these always sold well. He would have to watch out for more in the future.


6: Static

            An uneventful week went by. Adrian sat, ate, slept, and slowly made his way through Paradise; the trains kept coming and going, along with the customers. It was Sunday again. With the weather cooling, there had been remarkably little to find yesterday; even less worthy of purchase. It had been an easy chore to price it up this morning, and there was almost an hour until the shop opened at noon.
            He was waiting it out behind the counter. The radio was tuned to a classical music channel, and Adrian leaned back in his chair and picked up the book. It was pretty good, but the plot had gotten needlessly convoluted. He had best read the last two chapters over again before getting into the final three; otherwise he would be hopelessly lost. Despite the author's tendency to ramble on, he was rather enjoying the book. The radio crackled with static.
            Roughly a half of an hour later, somebody banged on the glass. He ignored it as somebody just passing by, but the noise persisted until he switched off the radio, put down the book and came out to the front of the store to see who was there. It was a man roughly his own age with fading reddish hair and a younger girl. The man looked familiar, but Adrian was at a loss for his name.
            "Adrian! Let us in!" The man knew him, and continued to bang on the door. Antisocial or not, there was no way he could get out of this. Maybe it was for the better anyways; it had been too long since he had meaningful human contact. Ever since his daughter had gone to study abroad; no, before that, back almost to the time of the divorce. He fished in the back pocket of his pants for the key and unlocked the door.
            "What's the matter, don't you remember me?" The man brushed his coat off as he came in, and the girl hung back and was quiet. The voice, the tone, and the gesture served to jog Adrian's memory.
            "Christy?" The man's face lit up in a smile. Christian Baker; one of Adrian's longtime friends from his days of schooling. It had been years since he'd seen Christy. This girl had to be his daughter; when had Christy gotten married? He vaguely remembered a wedding invitation from before, around the time of the divorce- he shoved that out of his mind. There was no need to spoil a happy reunion with thoughts of such things. "Come in, come back behind the counter here and stay for a while. Can I get you something? Coffee, tea?"
            "No, no. The wife's waiting back at the in-laws', along with my son Ritchie. This is my daughter Leslie. Leslie, this is Adrian, a friend of mine from years ago." The girl hesitatingly held out her hand, Adrian shook it gently and smiled. Oh, he wanted to see his daughter again. It had been a while since her last letter, maybe he should call her campus... but she was probably out for summer still, with her mother and step-father. Step-father. Marie's second husband...
            "We just stopped in at the convenience store down on the corner, and happened to see you." Adrian noticed Leslie was carrying a paper bag from the store and wondered what was in it. "See, we're visiting my wife's family this weekend. They live a short while away, just down the street. Now that I know where you are, I'll have to stop in for that cup you promised earlier," Christy said, grinning. "How about next Sunday, about this time?"
            "Sure, that would be nice. It was nice meeting you Leslie, and good to see you too, Christy. Give the wife my regards, and your son too." They went out the door. "Tell your wife and daughter I said 'Hi' too, Adrian." That stung, and almost brought tears to Adrian's eyes as he saw them off and waved as they went down the street.
            He needed to catch up with Christy; he had all but broken off contact with the man after missing his wedding. It was amazing that he wasn't angry about that, but then, Christy had always been easygoing and never one to hold a grudge. Even with the memories it brought back, Adrian was glad to see him again. It would be nice to have somebody to talk to.
            Thoughts of his wife and their daughter and her new husband milled around in his mind. He turned the sign to open; still twenty minutes before noon but he needed some distraction- it may as well be a customer. He went over and turned the radio back on, then picked up the goods from yesterday and set about finding places for them. Paradise lay forgotten next to the cash register.


7: City for the young

            The week went slowly. Adrian spent a good deal of time thinking, about his family and friends he'd left behind over the years. Tuesday he finished Paradise. The ending was unsatisfying, and he wasn't sure he liked the book as much now. There was nothing else good to read in the convenience store; just a few romance and mystery. Friday the redheaded student girl came back. She looked around and checked the electronic games, which he'd started looking out for, but left empty-handed. He wondered where the boy she'd been with went as she drove off in the car.
            Saturday he went out, armed with Saturday's newspaper's listing of yard sales in the Hally Fiald. Words milled around in his head; he tried to think of what to say to Christy. There were even fewer sales today. He bought a warm-looking jacket and put it on, and picked up an electronic game and a few paperbacks- including what seemed to be either a sequel or a prequel to Paradise, called "Utopia." He turned the Hally Fiald back in and rode the train back to South Urban.
            Sunday came, and Adrian waited anxiously; he had quickly stuck price stickers on the game and the two of the paperbacks he didn't intend to keep. Utopia was better than its predecessor, and seemed to be a sequel, but his heart wasn't in it as he leafed through the second chapter. The jacket hung on the back of the wall behind him, in his living space. A train had arrived across the street. Christy should be here any minute; he should make some coffee. Christy had liked coffee, right?
            Before he had a chance to get up, Christy himself appeared at the door, alone. He motioned that the door was unlocked, and as the man came in, asked, "Where are your children, and your wife?"
            "I decided to spare them the boredom of two old men talking. I could ask the same about your daughter and wife." Adrian sighed, and absently massaged a spot on his forehead. "Christy, we have a lot to catch up on. Let me lock the door, you can go into the living room back there and make yourself comfortable." This was going to be hard. Harder than even he expected; he hadn't told this to anyone before.
            Christian was waiting when Adrian came back, on one of the tattered chairs (they'd been bargains; he couldn't bear to part with either of them even though this was the first time in twelve years both had been used simultaneously). "Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea, water...?" Cristy sat with a thoughtful look for a second, then replied, "Coffee, please." Adrian nodded and motioned that it would be just a minute. The coffee machine was set up in a corner of the space, on the counter where the sink was. The wall was shared with the cleaners' next door, and as a result it shared the water line with the washing machines. Washing machine coffee, delicious.
            They sat and chatted for a few minutes about Christy's family. Adrian was still unsure how to begin when Christy asked the inevitable question, "So what's been going on with you? It looks like you live alone here. What happened?" Adrian swallowed and steeled himself. "Marie left me." Christy's expression was one of shock. "Or, more accurately, we decided to separate."
            "I don't hold it against her, understand. It wasn't an unfriendly separation. Twelve years ago, right about the time of your wedding- six days after Melissa's seventh birthday, June 18th- the factory laid me off. Like so many other low-seniority workers, I'd just made enough to get by. There wasn't much in savings. She was working at the delivery service, which was our only source of income.
            "There was no way she could support us both and our daughter. Over the next few weeks, I tried to find another job, but I didn't have the qualifications for anything other than assembly line work- and those jobs were all held onto dearly by those lucky enough to have them. Our savings began to run out, she couldn't make enough to match what we had to spend to get by on meals, utilities, and the rent.
            "A friend of mine from the factory told me about this place. It had been a barbershop of his friend's friend or some such, who had decided to give it up. I used up the vast majority of my retirement money to put down on it. She was furious. As soon as she calmed down, we came to the decision that we couldn't go on like this. It wasn't good for either of us, or for Melissa to see us like this. I opened the store, and for a year or two they came to visit, but the visits got to be fewer and far between. She had gotten promoted and they were living comfortably, the last time I spoke with her. That was about five years ago, now."
            Christy had finished his coffee. The empty, dirty cup clinked as he sat it on the table. He looked straight at Adrian, who did not meet his gaze. "You need to go back," he said. Adrian didn't answer. "I can take you back in my car, we can go now. Or if you have some stuff you need to finish up, I can wait a week or so."
            "Christy, you don't understand. This shop is my life now. I can't go back. I wouldn’t be able to get a job, still. Rent is a lot higher in a big city like Metracoast, I couldn't cover the costs running a small place like this." And he rather liked his comfortable routine, working the shop through the week, reading during the slow periods, going out Saturday, pricing new finds Sunday. And the people he'd met- Jean Harris and her daughter, the redheaded girl student, the few other "regular" customers he had. He couldn't leave all of this behind, it was too much to ask. "Metracoast is a city for the young, not for someone as set in their ways as I am."
            "Adrian... Since when do you consider yourself old?" There was a sadness in Christian's voice that hung in the air after he said his words. Then, characteristically, he broke it. "It's almost noon. I promised my wife and the kids I'd bring lunch home, do you know anywhere good around that lets you take out?" Adrian racked his mind; it had been months since he had last eaten out.
            "A few blocks west or so there's a little diner with pretty good food. I'm not sure if they do take out or not, I've never tried, but there's a few other small places there as well." Christy thanked him and took a piece of paper out of his pocket with a telephone number and address, presumably his own, on it and handed it to Adrian. As he went out the door, he said: "Consider my offer. I'd be glad to take you back to the city any time you want." Adrian waved, and watched him leave.


8: Loose change

            For the next three hours afterward, the shop was quiet. Two people came in to browse. One bought a gold necklace with an emerald pendant, and the other bought nothing and just looked around while Adrian sat behind the counter in his metal folding chair and read Utopia to the soft music of his usual classic music station. Sunday was always one of the busier days. A few times he got bored, set the book down, and leaned back in the chair; eyes closed and thinking. He thought of Christy and his family, including Christy's wife and son he'd never met; as well as of his own wife and daughter. He thought of Christy's words- "since when do you consider yourself old"- and tried not to.
            By chance he thought of Jean Harris, the "pop culture expert." What had become of her and her book? Also, the author R. Lee Harris. R. Lee Harris, Jean Harris. Harris must be a pretty common name; or perhaps they were related. If he ever saw the woman again he should ask her.
            It was during one of these periods of deep thought that a car door closed outside and a man with a bushy black beard in a black suit entered, with a black leather case and a large, thin paperback book under his arm. He wore an old-styled black hat with a wide brim that shadowed his upper face, emphasizing the beard even more. Adrian resumed an upright sitting position and watched as he looked around, seemingly waiting for something. After a few moments, when it seemed the man could not find what he was looking for or waiting for, Adrian resolved to ask him if he was looking for something specific.
            "Ehm. I am a dealer and a collector of metal currency, specializing in rare pieces. I was wondering if you had any such items on hand." A coin collector? He hadn't had one of those drop by in ages. "Yes, just a minute. The case is under the counter here." Adrian stooped down; his knees creaked ever so slightly as he fished in his pocket for the keys to the door to the counter's cabinet. The door slid open, got stuck, and slid again. The glass case with the coins pawned was there, as was another one with jewelry and the like. Adrian fiddled with the keys and found the correct one to unlock the case.
            When he stood up again, case in hand, the man was waiting patiently. Adrian sweated and froze; he thought his heart would burst from his chest as he saw the pistol held in the man's right hand. It was unreal, and mechanically Adrian finished the half-completed motion of unlocking the coin case.
            "Don't make any move to use the phone, or I will shoot." He reached inside the suit jacket and pulled out a white plastic grocery bag. "Please empty the contents of the cash register drawer into this bag." The money from the necklace he had sold earlier, a sizable sum that could have paid a third of the rent, was within. He had been relying on that money to get him through the month, but his life was more valuable than any sum (he still had to see his daughter again, one last time). He couldn't risk the man shooting, so he loaded the money into the bag as he had been instructed to do, in a fog of shock.
            "Do you have any jewelry in your possession now?" The gun pointed at his face, Adrian nodded. He bent down to get the case and bumped his knee against the small table on which the phone was sitting; the receiver fell off of the cradle with a mechanical ring. Initially, the dial tone was drowned out in the shot, which hit the wall about seven inches left and two above Adrian's head. The man cursed and ran, taking the bag of cash but leaving the now-empty coin case behind.
            He ran into Rudgar Telmach, owner and operator of the cleaners' next door, who was red-faced and out of breath. The robber's hat fell off, but Telly was unable to catch the man himself. Adrian, still in a daze, hadn't gotten a good look at the man's face. People from the station drifted over to the store to see what was going on, a woman offered her car as a ride to the police station or the hospital. Adrian tried to tell Telly that the phone was still off the hook as he drifted away into unconsciousness.


9: Tension and calm after the storm

            Telly accepted the offer for a ride to the hospital while somebody else remained behind to call the police. At the hospital, they thoroughly checked Adrian over. Because he still showed signs of shock, the doctor forced him to wait at the hospital and undergo a checkup before going to the police station and answering questions about the robbery. It was the late afternoon before they released him, only after careful inspection. The doctor said he had no major life-threatening health issues, which was probably the best news of the day.
            Robberies were fairly rare in the Walled City, especially armed ones. Adrian was interviewed by the newspaper and a radio broadcaster, as well as by the police at the station. It seemed that nobody had been able to catch the man; witnesses said that there had been a car waiting around the corner. The car registered as being on travelers' loan, but the man that was supposed to have it didn't match the description of the robber. The police said that they should be able to catch the robber, especially with the testimony of all the bystanders, but carefully worded their statement so that there was no guarantee.
            Thankfully, all of the fingerprinting and evidence had been gathered while Adrian was at the hospital. The sun had gone down sometime in the mess. Telly offered to treat Adrian to dinner, and he accepted. The food was somewhat bland and the conversation sparse, but Adrian did not at all regret going. This did not mean that he wasn't glad for a moment alone after Telly dropped him off at home. He turned off the light and went to sleep, deeply tired, and unable to get much rest.
            Christy called long distance from Metracoast in the morning. It took a while to make him thoroughly satisfied that Adrian was fine, but eventually he had to go. Adrian turned the window sign to open and picked up his paperback copy of Utopia. Nothing had changed, except that there was a bullet hole in the wall and Adrian's finances were more uncertain- at least the thief hadn't gotten away with the jewelry as well.
            A few customers came in, curious about the stories of the robbery. Some bought things, some didn't, and the Monday morning passed into afternoon. One thought and one thought alone passed through his mind, over and over again, distracting him from tidying, customers, and reading all together.
            I could have died, he thought to himself. If that shot had been just a little bit lower... I could have died yesterday. I could have left this world without seeing Marie again, without seeing Melissa again. Melissa... She must be 20 now, he thought. I've sent her presents every year, and she writes letters about what's going on, but it's not the same as seeing her...
            He shook his head to clear it, and walked out of the store to check his mail. There was a thick envelope in the box, and he could feel something hard and heavy under the bubble-wrap. He checked the return address, but didn't recognize it. He opened the envelope and slid out the contents: a slim paperback book. He turned it over to see the cover.
            "Walled Culture, Metraculture: Trends in the First and Second Cities," read the title, set in definitive black against a collage of pictures of various garish company logos from the two cities. Metracola, Aman's restaurant, the Walled City Transport Administration, Hally Fiald, and countless other emblems. He glanced down at the author's name, though he was pretty sure who the book was from. Yes, Jean Harris. He opened the front cover and a thin piece of paper slipped out; it was a note from Jean personally thanking him for his help. The note said that she expected the 25 machine book to come out in the summer next year, and she would pass along more information as he got it.
            First good news I've had in a while, he thought, scanning the reviews on the first page. One referred to Jean as the "daughter of author R. Lee Harris," and he smiled. Well, that was one wild guess confirmed. He tucked the book back into the envelope for safekeeping; he would look at it later, to give himself something to look forward to after he wrote out the finances.
            When he got back in to the shop, the answering machine had picked up and was recording a message. He walked over to the counter and set the mail down next to his paperback copy of Utopia, listening and trying to judge if he wanted to talk to whoever it was.
            " Marie," the message said. "I heard about the robbery yesterday, and I just wanted to make sure you were all right." Marie, Adrian thought, Marie... "I'm sorry for not calling in so long, a lot has happened since we last spoke. John and I got divorced, I don't know if Melissa told you in one of her letters... I don't really know what to say, Adrian, please call me back." She hesitated, and then left her phone number, and then said "I miss you," then there was the click of the phone. Adrian blinked, suddenly aware that tears were forming in his eyes. I miss you too, he thought, I miss you too...
            He sat down and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, then picked up the phone. There had been so many near misses lately, and he just couldn't deal with it any more, couldn't live like this any more, he thought as he dialed the phone number. An answering machine picked up. So many near misses... He cleared his throat and spoke clearly into the phone.
            "Christy, this is Adrian, I think I'm going to have to take you up on that ride home..."