The Price

Won first in the "Inspired by a Song" competition

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Rich Navarro is a fifteen-year-old girl living it rough in the city of Manhattan. With shy Thomas by her side, she steals and sneaks for the gang known as the Runners, led by the ruthless Crew. But when Rich gets caught stealing from her leader's personal stash, she finds herself cornered with nowhere to go, and it doesn't take long for the bullets Crew and his men put in her to do their job.

But Rich isn't ready to die just yet. When the Devil himself offers her life when she's on the brink of death, she obliviously accepts his deal, her instinct to live trumping all others. Rich will find herself entering a completely new life, one of infamous glory and comfort beyond compare, her fortune that of the one her mother always hoped she would have.

But the price is the one thing Rich thought she would never have to compromise: her soul.

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1. Deal

Mama told me not to waste my life.

            And I don’t plan to.

            “Richy,” Thomas hisses behind me. “Richy.”

            “What?” I snap back, swiping my black bangs out of my eyes. A bullet plants itself firmly in the wood over my head, and I wince.

            The counter we’re hiding behind is much too crowded, by stools and by trash, and as such, Thomas is sucked up to my side, his wide blue eyes gazing down at me with all of the trust in the world. He doesn’t answer me, but I know what he’s thinking.

            Fix it, Richy. Fix it.

            More bullets pelt the wood above our heads, sending splinters flying. A large piece of glass from the top of the counter lands in my lap, and I flinch back. When I flick it away, Thomas whimpers. “We’re gonna die.”

            “Someone will, if you don’t shut up.” My words come out more harshly than intended, and Thomas grimaces. I immediately feel guilty, but I quickly brush the unwanted emotion away.

            How you gone get out dis one, Rich? Mama’s voice, thick with her N’awlins accent, rings in my ears. Can’t get out all dis mess. Da Lord gives and da Lord takes away.

            “Rich.”

            The gunfire has stopped, and Crew’s voice booms through the small knick-knack store. Sally’s Market is now riddled with holes, and I know she’ll have a right fit about it in the morning when she’s here to see it. I can’t help but think that if she was here, she would storm all over this mess and put the situation in the right.

            “Rich,” Crew says again. I’m not dumb enough to lift myself up to watch him, and he knows it. After a moment’s pause, he starts talking. “Now, Richy. I don’t want no trouble. But you and Tommy Boy done stole my cash. How am I s’pposed to take that?”

            Crew is a big brute of a man, the eldest brother in a family of con artists and thugs. His gang here in Manhattan, the Runners, was the first place to take me in seven years ago. I was barely eight at the time, lost and alone without Mama—the cancer already took her back in N’awlins in our little apartment, and any other family I might have never showed themselves—and his offer of food and shelter was a godsend.

            Stealing is the name of my game, along with Thomas, who’s a year younger than me but, at the same time, he’s been with the Runners a year longer. We can snatch just about anything, from jewelry to clothes to documents to cars. It’s why Crew left two scrawny kids around, two kids who can barely hold their own weight on their backs.

            And I was dumb enough to steal a secret store of Crew’s cash.

             I be leavin’, Rich. Mama is in my head again, preaching her last words to me, the same words she told me on her deathbed. I be leavin’ and you ain’t comin’ wid me. I ain’t gone see no tears, neither. But you listen to me, child. You ain’t gone waste no life of yours. You make some’din special out yourself, here me? Ain’t gone live poor like we done. You pick yourself up, Rich Girl. And you go.

            “Rich.” Crew is starting to get impatient, and that means nothing good for me and Thomas. “You give me my money, and I’ll consider forgiving you. ‘Cause I know Tommy Boy done followed you into this mess, and you best get him out. Or are you gonna feed him to the sharks?”

            Thomas is looking at me; I know without having to check. His big blue eyes are pleading, boring into the side of my head, his thin, pale hands wringing nervously in front of him like an old man. When I do look, I see sweat lines his upper lip, and he’s shaking visibly.

            “Please,” he whispers. “Just…just do what he say.”

            You pick yourself up, Rich Girl.

            I close my eyes, even as the click of guns being reloaded reaches my ears. Mama, I’m trying. God, I don’t know what to do. I got my money saved up and I got a kid to look after, and he’s scared and I’m scared, and I’m trying to get out and make something of myself, but I’m stuck. I’m stuck, Mama.

            And, as if she’s sitting right next to me, I hear her voice: You be spreadin’ your wings, Baby Rich. And you show the world how you be shinin’.

            My eyes are stinging, but I refuse to cry. Instead, I swallow the lump in my throat and then speak, knowing Crew can hear me. “I’ll give you your money, but you’re gonna kill us anyway.”

            A pause. And then: “That’s not my problem, now is it?”

            Bastard, I think, even as my hands begin to shake. I make them into fists to keep myself under control, even as Thomas lets out a heartbroken sob. You’ve been stealing what’s mine for years, my money, my stuff…

            But this is Crew. His sense of right and wrong is deeply warped, and it doesn’t matter that he steals from me on a daily basis, claiming it’s his “rent income” from me. Every dime I made, he left a penny in return, all for his protection and shelter in a dingy old warehouse down the street, one that constantly threatens to collapse over our heads. My plan was to steal and leave, to put Crew and the Runners behind me and make a new start with Thomas, but they’re always a step ahead.

            I was dumb. Careless. And now I’m caught like a declawed cat in a corner with a broken tooth.

            I finally open my eyes to look at Thomas, his eyes hidden beneath his hands. I can see his nose, though, and it’s already red and running, hopelessness gripping him like a vise. I look away, vaguely listening Crew give me another shot to come out without being riddled like Swiss cheese, and then I jerk back into Thomas.

            Because on my other side, dangerously close to the aisle between the counter and a rack of clothes, is Mama.

            “Mama?” I whisper, eyes wide.

            She’s smiling at me in the way she has, showing none of her rotten teeth but every bit of her fierce courage, her dark eyes sparkling with mischief. Looking at her, I see an older—and dirtier, since every ounce of money she ever made was put toward my own hygiene—version of myself. The smooth mocha skin; the unruly black hair braided back against her skull, a style she passed down to me; the thin bone structure, from her hollow cheeks to her straight nose to her stick-like midsection, though with her, that was more from the constant hunger.

            Rich Girl, I hear her whisper, even though her mouth doesn’t move. I’m still in shock, watching her with wide, disbelieving eyes. I miss you. But you been a right fool, and you be one now, hidin’ behind dis counter.

            My eyes are stinging again, but I fight back the tears and choke out more words. “Mama? I don’t know, Mama…”

            You be lost. I know dat. Her smile quirks at the end of one side, and I have to fight a laugh. I know that smile, and nothing but trouble ever followed. But you gone find yourself. Don’t you waste your life like I done, Baby Rich. Spread dem wings.

            Her image wavers, and in seconds she’s gone. I blink back tears and shock, but my body ignores me and shakes anyway. Crew shouts something to his men in the background, and the firing of bullets starts up again. The counter groans under the impact, and I know that very soon, we won’t be protected anymore. They’ll light us up with those bullets like the Manhattan skyline.

            Thomas has buried his head in his hands and knees. He’s curled up his long, lanky body into an upright fetal position, his lank brown hair spreading out around his head like a greasy hat. I look down at him and flinch when a bullet tears away another chunk of the counter, and I duck down further to avoid getting my head blown to pieces.

            But ducking down does nothing. The counter has been compromised, and in the next second, I feel a bullet punch into my right shoulder. Despite my best intentions, I let out a scream of pain. The men firing the guns laugh, even as tears of frustration well in my eyes.

            Mama, I think, even as another fire-ridden punch to my back and then my side hits me. I see the blinking light overhead as I fall, and somewhere, I hear Thomas screaming my name. But the world is already going dark, and all I can seem to think is, I wish I could have spread those wings and flown far away from here.

            But maybe I’ll be flying soon.

           

            “Do you want to die, Rich?”

            I open my eyes, but all I can see is light. I wince and look away, but even that small movement causes me pain. When I try to move my legs, agony sweeps through my back, and I let out a gurgling gasp.

            The voice, deep and cold, floats toward me once more. “You are dying, Rich Navarro. Do you understand what I’m saying? You. Are. Dying.”

            My eyes cannot adjust to the light, and I keep turning my head from side to side. When I try to talk, my throat feels clogged with something warm. I cough, and the pain is great enough that my eyes begin to stream, even as the warm liquid moves down my lips and chin, having been spat up from the depths of my chest.

            I take in a ragged breath, ignoring the familiar, metallic taste in my mouth. “I’m…not dead?”

            “You will be.”

            And then my eyes focus. The man leaning above me is close enough that I can see every feature, from his pale skin to his white hair to his blind, milky eyes. He’s heartbreakingly perfect, but his voice is cold and dark.

            I open my mouth, even as my eyes well with more pain-filled tears. My body is riddled with holes; I can feel each and every one of them, gushing the same warmth that threatens to flood my lungs once more. Every breath I take requires effort, and eventually, I find myself gasping.

            “Do not speak.” The man gazes down on me without pity. “You will be dead in minutes. Know this. Should you die, you may join your maman very soon. But I will ask you once more, and only once: do you want to live?”

            I don’t know how to answer without drowning myself in my own blood. It’s clear now I was shot in the chest while I was down and dying, and I know the man gazing at me with empty eyes speaks nothing but the truth. The realization that my end is near makes my body shake.

            We be survivors. Mama’s voice is a whisper in my head. We always be livin’, even when it be hard. Ain’t nu’din stand in da way of us Navarro child. You remember that, Rich. You be smart. You be alive.

            His eyes pierce my own, and the smallest of smiles curls his lips. “I can save you, Rich Navarro. I can make your life mean something. I will give you purpose. I will keep you safe, and you will be prized and adored. I will make you fly.”

            He’s said the right thing. I look at him, my heart pounding, struggling to live, and in his eyes I see possibilities. I hear Mama in my head, whispering to me to fly away from the life she was never able to escape. My tears return, but this time they come from hope, a fragile, thin line of hope that is threatening to break.

            The man holds out his hand and takes my own clammy one. I look down at it to see my fingers slick with blood. My heart pounds out a slow rhythm, and I can feel my blood sluggishly crawling through my veins. Everything is struggling, slowing as my wounds take their toll.

            “All you have to do,” he whispers, “is squeeze my hand. Make a deal with the devil, Rich Navarro, and he will give you everything.”

            I close my eyes.

            You be smart. You be alive.

             Ever-so-slightly, my fingers twitch, clutching around his own in a grip so light, I wonder if he feels it.

            I only see his grin before my vision goes dark again. He whispers something in my ear and holds me up by my neck, but eventually the black sucks me under, body and soul. The words that were whispered to me do not fade, and even in the blank nothingness I am floating in, I hear them.

            I will make you fly.

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