This story is by Rachel Grayson and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alexander Johnson ignored the scowls from other patrons in the bar.
His pressed pants and dress shirt stood out among the blue jeans and T-shirts occupying other booths and bar stools. The regulars seemed offended someone from Alexander’s social stratum dared enter their own. People like him didn’t come to this side of town, where some among the blue-collar crowd spent most of their evenings.
In the corner, a snowy TV covered a football game, the announcer’s garbled voice indistinguishable over classic rock blaring from a dusty jukebox near the front.
Several empty whisky glasses stood before Alexander, a full one in his hand. He drained it before slamming it onto the counter, motioning the bartender over. “I’ll have another of those, Jerry.”
The bartender, his back to Alexander, glanced over his shoulder. “I think you’ve had enough, slick. And the name’s Joe, not Jerry.”
Alexander laughed, drawing more looks. “Sorry, Joe. I knew a Joe once. He was a real jerk.” He laughed again. It turned into a phlegmy cough.
The bartender didn’t turn around. “Like I said, I think you’ve had enough.”
Alexander recovered, his voice raspy. “Oh, I’ve had enough, all right. You don’t even know how much I’ve had.”
“Uh-huh,” Joe said, finally turning to pick up the empty glasses. He put them in a gray plastic bin with other dirty dishes.
“Lemme ask you a question,” Alexander said. He leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “If your son did something you didn’t like, would you cut him off?”
Joe picked up a clean mug and began polishing it with a dirty rag.
Alexander pointed at him. “That’s how my old man is. Has all this money but won’t spend it. So, I decided to spend some of it for ’im. Now my dad thinks I went too far. Says I ‘crossed a line.’ With him, crossing lines is all I ever seem to do.”
He thought back to last night’s argument.
“I know you hate rules,” his dad had said. “But you live in a world of rules, Alex. Money doesn’t change that.”
The next day, Alexander’s credit cards didn’t work. Neither did his cell service. He had some cash on hand, but not enough to visit his favorite watering hole. So, he wandered into Joe’s, hoping to numb himself to his new reality.
He sighed. “Sometimes it feels like I’m living in a game of hopscotch. Every step I take, I cross a line.”
Joe’s rag paused on the mug’s rim. “Hopscotch?”
Alexander nodded. “Yeah. If it were up to me I would just,” he sliced the air with a hand, “erase ’em all.”
“All the what?”
“Huh,” Joe said. He hefted the plastic bin and went into the back.
As the two-way door swung shut behind him, a voice somewhere to Alexander’s left chimed in. “Why don’t you, then?”
Alexander swiveled in his seat, almost falling off.
The voice came from the bar’s dimmest corner, a spot other patrons seemed to avoid. A booth sat in shadows, the lamp above its table broken. Its only occupant perched on a seat’s edge. He lifted a cigarette to his mouth, its end kindling cherry red, and a cloud of smoke engulfed him when he spoke. “I said, why don’t you erase those lines? You can, you know.”
Alexander narrowed his eyes. “Excuse me?”
The stranger rose, his gait smooth and his hair smoother. He wore a tailored, cream-colored suit with a red carnation in its buttonhole, looking more out of place than Alexander.
As he sat on a barstool, the dapper gentleman chuckled quietly, revealing gleaming white teeth. “I’ve been listening, Alexander. And I can help.”
Alexander scoffed. “Oh, really? How?”
“By giving you something. A tool to help you accomplish your goals.”
Alexander waved a hand. “Get outta here.”
“I assure you, my offer is completely legitimate.”
“Sure it is.”
The stranger placed his cigarette in an ashtray, then opened a lapel of his jacket and reached inside. When he withdrew his hand, he held an envelope three inches thick. “This,” he said, placing it on the bar, “is my offer. With this, you’ll never again worry about having money to spend.” He opened the envelope, revealing layers of neatly stacked bills.
Alexander felt his eyes grow wide. His fingers twitched. “What’s the catch?”
The stranger smiled again. “No catch. I’m simply a wealthy individual seeking to assist those who desire freedom. You take the envelope. You spend the money. And you never rely on your father’s wealth again.”
Alexander shook his head. “Money’s gotta run out sometime.”
The grin widened. “You might be surprised how long it will last. In fact, if you accept, it will ensure you remain wealthy for the rest of your life.”
The jukebox stopped playing. A patron smacked it in vain.
Alexander pursed his lips. The guy didn’t look like a gangster or drug runner. At least, not that Alexander could tell. And he seemed educated. Even the gentle, refined way he spoke suggested good breeding. Maybe it was for real. Anyway, if it wasn’t, and Alexander found himself in legal trouble, he could just say he had been tricked and give a detailed description of the man who framed him. They’d have no problem finding this guy.
“All right,” he said, half expecting the stranger to admit he was joking. “I’ll take it.”
The man snuffed out his cigarette, a gleam in his eye. “Then I’ll leave you to decide on your first purchase.” He made a motion like tipping a hat. “Good evening.”
With that, the stranger strolled out of the bar.
Alexander turned to the envelope.
It sat there, almost daring him to pick it up.
A quiet warning tickled the back of his mind. Things like this don’t just happen. But what did he have to lose?
He snatched up the envelope and counted how much was inside.
Then, he wasted no time.
That same day, he bought a solid gold watch, the purchase barely making a dent in the envelope’s contents.
Back at his apartment, eviction imminent, he counted the envelope’s contents to see how much remained.
To his astonishment, it equaled the amount he had counted at Joe’s bar. At first, he thought he was crazy. But the next day, he bought a pair of Italian leather shoes. And that evening, the money replenished itself, just like the day before.
After his third purchase—a three-piece suit—he was convinced.
He rented a new apartment in the upscale part of town, filling it with art and furniture. He held dinners and climbed social ladders, impressing those of status and flaunting his newfound wealth. If he took money from the envelope, even if he didn’t spend it, the unassuming paper would refill itself, letting him save as much as he wanted over the next two years.
One day, on his way to meet an investor, Alexander chose to walk and enjoy the cool fall air rather than take a taxi.
As he passed an alley, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see a fist. Then, darkness.
Next thing Alexander knew, he woke with a mouth full of blood.
He spat onto wet concrete and tried to sit up, but couldn’t. “Where am I? What happened?”
“You’re on a particularly unpleasant side of town,” a familiar voice said. “Jumped by a gang of thieves. Your injuries appear quite serious.”
Despite the pain, Alexander patted every pocket he had.
“You won’t find it,” the voice said.
A shadow fell over Alexander. Above him stood the dapper gentleman, who opened his jacket to remove the smudged and creased envelope.
Relief filled Alexander. He held out his hand. “Thanks.”
The gentleman weighed the envelope for a moment, then returned it to his own pocket.
A cold sense of dread gripped Alexander. “What are you doing?”
“Taking back what’s mine.”
“Now wait a minute,” Alexander said. “You gave that to me. No catch, remember? You said it wouldn’t run out as long as I lived.”
The gentleman smiled. That same, toothy smile. “Yes, I did, didn’t I?”
The reality of Alexander’s situation struck him with merciless clarity. He had been a fool to trust this stranger. A fool to accept his offer. “I can pay you,” he cried. “I still have some of the money saved!”
“I wouldn’t take it,” the gentleman said. “And far be it from me to condemn you to a life you craved to escape. A life of lines, if I recall correctly. Only now, you face a line all the money in the world can’t erase. A line all must cross at one time or another.” He made a mocking bow. “Good evening, Alexander.”
Darkness crept in on Alexander’s consciousness. As it did, his father’s words echoed in his mind. “You live in a world of rules, Alex. Money doesn’t change that.”