Our hunger satiated, we went upstairs to Claire’s room. Claire lay down on the bed, while Jacoby sat on a bean bag and I sunk into a comfy chair. I waited patiently as we watched a droll TV show, feeling slightly apprehensive. Asking people about personal stuff could be hard. Was hard, especially when it concerned how strangely someone was acting.
Eventually, at a point when I had almost fallen asleep, Jacoby got up to go to the bathroom. The only reason I noticed at all was that he blocked my view of the TV, not that I was really watching.
I jolted up as he walked in front of me. I glanced over at Claire nervously, half hoping that Jacoby would come back before I could say anything. She was leaning forward, intently watching whatever was on the TV. I then noticed the noise the TV was making, how loud it was, and how hard it would be to carry on a conversation with it present, so I looked around for the remote. Deliberately taking my time, I eventually spotted it on the on the table next to the bed.
I reached over, stretching, and grabbed it. Claire looked at me curiously, and in response I turned down the volume so we’d be able to hear each other, then got up and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Jacoby wouldn’t be too much longer. I managed to overcome my fear, knowing this was my only chance:
“Claire, what’s up?”
“Uhh, nothing,” she said, puzzled.
“I mean, why are you so enthusiastic about the stealing?” I clarified. “You wouldn’t have been this way before. No offense, but you normally are a bit of a chicken.”
She frowned, but let it pass without argument. I continued, “Then you acted weird towards Mr. Owens. Why are you acting different?”
She sighed, and rolled over so she was facing me. “So, there’s this issue. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
I nodded mutely.
“Well, my mom and dad both lost their jobs a few months ago,” she said, not meeting my eyes. ”They’ve cut back my allowance and we have, like, an official ban on going out to dinner. They’ve talked about moving too. I just want to help, if I can bring in even two hundred dollars a week that’ll help a lot. It really sucks though, since the quarantine made everything worse for us.”
Well that immediately made me feel bad for her. No matter how my moral philosophy told me to act, I couldn’t suppress basic empathy or sympathy. Her situation didn’t seem that bad when she started talking, from what little I knew of finance. Both her parents had high in demand jobs, and at most they’d have to move. Which would suck, and I would miss her, but wouldn’t be the end of the world. Tons of people had it worse.
Then she mentioned the quarantine, at pretty much the same time I thought of it. That screwed everything up. Employment, at least short term, was all screwy, since no one knew how long the quarantine would last. Even if people were thinking it would be over quickly, they had no reason to hire someone now instead of waiting until it was over. Claire’s family also couldn’t move now even if they wanted to.
I grimaced sympathetically. “That really sucks,” I said. “I get that you want to help, but couldn’t you have gotten a job?”
She screwed up her eyebrows. “Well I didn’t think anyone would hire me; I’m not that amazing. And this just came up, I only thought of helping them at all a week or so before you came to us with the idea.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. No matter how misguided or unnecessary her enthusiasm was, or how troubling it would be for her to give her parents hundreds of dollars whose source she couldn’t identify, I wanted to keep her on board with the stealing. On the more altruistic side, I didn’t want to crush her fantasy of helping them. Everyone deserved to feel that they were valued.
I settled for saying: “Okay, I guess I understand why you want to. At least no one owes money to the mob or anything.” I paused, thinking how to phrase what I wanted to say, before continuing, “You also need to be very careful about how you give the money to your parents. They’ll think it’s from drugs or stealing or something. And you can’t tell them about what we’re doing, since they’ll think it’s wrong. Which it may be, but that’s beside the point. Even if they’ve never grounded you in the past, you’ll be stuck in the house for eternity, or at least until college if they find out about this.”
Her arms crossed, she huffed and sat up, leaning against the head board.
“I know that, Elie,” she stated firmly. “I won’t be stupid about it. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I’ll figure it out. I won’t just wing it.”
“Okay…” I said uncertainly.
It’s not that I didn’t trust her to be responsible, all the teachers did, so there probably was something there. It’s just that I’d never personally seen her do something on her own initiative that didn’t end up failing awfully. I knew she’d try, and not intentionally expose us, but even the tiniest amount of suspicion aroused could be disastrous.
She plastered a smile on as Jacoby reentered, but it seemed forced. He looked at us, brows furrowed, as he entered. Probably wondering what we were up to.
After plopping back down on the bean bag, he said, “Can someone turn up the volume? It seems quieter than when I left.”
Claire and I looked at each other, I thought trying to stifle laughs. Then as I reached for the remote on her bed, I saw tears shining in Claire’s eyes.
I immediately stopped what I was doing, and moved from the chair back to the bed. I put an arm around her, feeling her shoulders silently shaking, slight hiccups barely vocal. By this point Jacoby had turned around to see whether we were going to adjust the volume, and saw what was happening. He made his way over to the bed as well.
With us clustered around her, she lost it even more. The sobs came out louder, and Jacoby frantically got up and shut the door. While I didn’t enjoy comforting people, it was better than if her parents came in here. With her so emotional, I had no idea what she’d blurt out, about the stealing to try to help. So I held her, and Jacoby rubbed her back, his hand moving in clockwise circles. I just hoped this didn’t end as badly as last time I tried to make someone feel better.
He had the foresight, in addition to shutting the door, to turn back up the TV volume, so her parents wouldn’t hear the crying if the noise managed to get through the closed door. I looked up at him gratefully. I looked up at him gratefully. He returned a sad smile, perhaps remembering why he’d been crying the last time.
Claire eventually calmed down enough to sputter out, “I j-just don’t want to l-l-leave.” She must have been thinking along the same lines as I had been before. “I n-need to stay with you guys. I love you.”
Jacoby glanced at me, questioning or prompting, so I responded to Claire.
“We love you too,” I whispered to her. Jacoby nodded in affirmation, though Claire probably couldn’t see it. “We want you to stay here too. If you think this is the best way to help your parents, then do that. And the quarantine may actually be helpful—“
Claire lifted her tear stained gaze up towards me, skepticism evident.
I released my hold on her, then continued, “It might be helpful because if it stays in place, there’ll probably be changes so people don’t get kicked out of their house and stuff. I don’t know anything will happen, but the economy isn’t self-sufficient. It’ll eventually have to change to free goods or something, in a few weeks.”
By this point, both she and Jacoby were looking at me with interest. I didn’t have anything more to say, though.
After a few seconds of silence, Claire spoke up. Looking slightly less sad, she told us, “My mom mentioned something yesterday or today, that I managed to absorb even though I was doing my best to ignore her. Whenever she talks, the worry comes through in her tone, and I don’t like to hear that. Anyway, she said that barely anyone still had cash, and that was a problem with shopping. Especially since with the internet down, credit cards don’t work. And the government air-dropped supplies going right to the same stores that would have gotten them before the quarantine. Places have started accepting things in exchange for food, but mostly they take down your credit card number and how much it costs. So they’ll have to do something new soon.”
We all sat in silence, thinking about that. Claire seemed to have, if not necessarily forgotten about her issue, at least put it to the side enough to be distracted by the tangentially related topic.
It was all news to me. My mom stayed home the past week since she did a ton of work on the phone and internet and couldn’t do that, while my dad, who normally worked from home, seemed like he had something he could do. At least, whenever I saw him, he was on his computer like normal. Maybe getting ahead on some type of writing. As interesting as an entire shift in the economy or new form of currency or whatever would happen was, it didn’t personally affect me. In fact, with the money from the stealing, we’d be ahead of everyone else. I didn’t know whether our thieving contact knew that, so I made a mental note to send them a letter explaining the situation. Maybe they’d pay us more or something.
When Jacoby saw that I had stopped staring blankly into space, he snapped out of his trance as well.
The mood had taken on a heady feel, not unpleasant, but still serious.
Presumably feeling this, he said, “So Claire, want the same treatment Elie gave me when I was crying?”
She glanced at me, and I feigned ignorance, shrugging my shoulders. I don’t think she bought it.
She turned to him. “If Elie did something with or to you, I don’t think I want to know what it was.”
“Oh, but you do,” he leered. “It was so fun; I almost ended up with my clothes off.”
She blushed. I got that if we wanted to really get Claire out her funk, we needed to laugh and stuff, but this was laying it on a bit thick.
Sensing her awkwardness and growing reticence, I turned to Jacoby and said:
“I wouldn’t say that. I knew what I was willing to do, and that wasn’t something that I could agree to in that situation. Not saying it’s out of the picture for another time…”
Claire blushed even deeper, probably able to guess what we were talking about, but cracked a smile, and seemed more comfortable with me joking with Jacoby about this than her.
Well, I could oblige her. I turned back to Jacoby, and he said jokingly, “Oh, that was a one-time offer on my part. It takes two to tango, you know.”
At this, Claire found her voice. “You sound like my granddad, Jacoby. No one uses that phrase.”
I looked to Jacoby, and we both rolled our eyes.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of elegance to language, is there, Jacoby?” I said.
“Of course there isn’t, my dear Elie. Eloquence and loquaciousness are incredibly important skills in this day and age,” he replied.
Claire, in one fluid motion, slid back and put an arm on each of our backs, then shoved us together, saying, “Well aren’t you two perfect for each other?”
I fell on top of him, which felt eerily reminiscent of when we’d kissed.
I didn’t move for a few seconds, hands on his chest, looking down at him. Claire moved back toward us and got up on her knees so she could see us better.
“Are you guys having a moment? Do you want me to leave?”
That startled Jacoby and me out of our staring contest, and he shoved me with slightly more force than necessary off him and to the side.
“Oh, phew,” she said, smiling. “It would’ve been awkward to be kicked out of my own room.”
I sat up, and said, “You could join us.”
She shook her head so vigorously that I started laughing, and barely managed to get out:
At that, we all cracked up, and laughed until our sides ached. Personally, it made my jaw sore more than anything, a sign my humor wasn’t truly genuine, but a little act to seal the conclusion of the depressing moment couldn’t hurt anybody.
When I finally managed to calm down enough to sit up, I looked at my watch, and recoiled in surprise. It was already seven o’clock. At least my parents wouldn’t be as mad this time, since I’d asked permission.
I got up to leave, but before I did, I asked Claire and Jacoby to be extra careful with the money. They both shrugged off my warning. I hoped they knew the correct amount of caution to apply anyway. Jacoby didn’t want to come with me, and decided to stay at Claire’s for a little longer. Probably so he could talk more with her, since he wasn’t present for all her storytelling. I’d have to remember to tell Ava at some point about this.