Mika splashed through the fountain and climbed the statue. He gripped the stone girl’s hair and hefted himself up. The statue was stooped over, her arms shoved down a pipe that bubbled up cold water, and Mika straddled her back. Benj stood next to him staring ahead at the platform in the center of the square, and he reached up to grab at Mika’s hand, his fingers like excited birds.
Mika pushed Benj’s hand away. At ten, he was too old to do that in public. Benj didn’t seem to mind as he bounced up and down, soaking his pants and boots.
“Let me up let me up,” Benj said, scrabbling at the statue.
“Not enough room,” Mika said, knocking his brother away. “Look, it’s starting.”
The Verash Company manager climbed the platform and scanned the crowd. Rich and poor, Company and stranger, they all gathered for the lottery drawing. An enormous wire globe sat in the middle of the stage. The manager bowed to the crowd, then turned a crank that made the ball roll.
Small, tightly folded pieces of beige paper tumbled and fluttered. “I love this part,” Benj said, and his voice carried over the hush of the crowd.
“Quiet,” Mika whispered.
The manager stopped turning after the legally allotted thirty seconds and opened a small hatch. He shoved in his hand, moved it all around, and removed a single folded square.
Mika took a strip of paper from his pocket. It’d cost him and Benj all their wages for the past three days and mother was furious when she found out. Benj stood on tiptoes to look at the numbers: 3433.
The manager walked to the edge of the stage and held up the winning paper. For one perfect moment the numbers remained locked in the man’s head, and Mika imagined life if they won: mother could stop working in the bread shop, waking hours before dawn to sweat and slave; Benj could go to school instead of sweeping floors; Mika wouldn’t have to scrub pans for his uncle anymore. They could have a real future.
“Three four one eight,” the manager said, and his voice rang clear over the dead silence.
Mika squeezed his eyes shut then passed the paper down to Benj, who groaned softly.
Then a scream toward the front of the crowd. A young girl, nineteen at most, was escorted up to the stage. She wore simple clothes and was probably a low-ranked worker like Mika’s mother.
The crowd applauded. That much money, it could change a life.
As people dispersed, and the manager broke down the great globe, and the worker-girl sat at the edge of the stage crying with delight, Mika wondered why it was them, why the girl, why the mangers, why the Company men in fine velvet doublets, and not his mother, or him, or Benj.
“Come on,” Benj said, tugging at Mika’s leg. He’d have to stop doing that sort of thing soon. “We’d better go.”
An idea slipped into Mika’s head when he landed in the water. Ideas came to him like that sometimes.
This was a bad one. But he looked at Benj, who stared at the lottery ticket with resigned dismay, and he thought maybe it might be worth a try.
Verash was dark and quiet in the middle of the night. Mika crept down the lane followed by Benj. They stuck to the shadows and took side alleys, skirting the fountains and hiding when the dog-beaters came bearing clubs and lanterns.
Manager Cabrid’s house was surrounded by a low stone wall. The slate roof glistened from the day’s rain. Mika crouched down near the back gate and checked for anyone nearby.
“What are we doing?” Benj whispered.
Mika hadn’t told his brother about the plan. Better Benj not know, if this went wrong. Which it probably would.
“You’re staying here,” Mika said. “If you hear something happening, whistle for the dogs.” He slipped Mika a wrapped package of bread and meat he’d saved from their evening meal.
“You want me to attract strays?” Benj stared down at the paper-covered food. “For what?”
“Distraction.” It was a dangerous escape plan, but the best he could come up with.
Mika took a breath and climbed the wall. At the top, he glanced down at his brother, at the baby fat cheeks and bright blue eyes, then slipped over the side and into the manager’s yard.
Dead quiet from the house. Mika continued around the building until he reached a window barely big enough for a child to squeeze through.
He took a thin piece of wood from his pocket and eased it in the gap between the panes. The latch wobbled, made a jingling noise, then released. He pulled it open then squeezed inside.
The room was covered with big cases stacked against one wall, shelves piled high with goods. It smelled like spices. Manager Cabrid ran the neighborhood general store, and stocked almost everything.
Mika ignored it all. He crept out of the store room into a back hallway. The wood floors creaked and he moved as slowly as he could. The front shop was beyond a closed curtain and he slipped through into the space behind the counter.
It was strange seeing the shop from this angle. He rifled through small drawers, ignored soap, cotton patches, nails and screws, buttons, and stopped at a stack of small paper slips.
He held the stack up in the air and ran his thumb down their end. Each had a number written on it in tight Company script.
The lottery tickets. There’d be another drawing in two weeks, and one of these might be the lucky winner. There must’ve been hundreds, which meant hundreds of chances to change his life forever.
He shoved half the stack in his pocket and left the other half where they were. Better for this not to be noticed than to be too greedy.
Wild barking echoed from the street.
He turned and began back to the store room and froze.
“Benj,” Mika whispered.
Shouts from a few blocks over. The dog-beaters were on their way. Mika ran down the hallway and threw himself through the window. He didn’t pause to close it again as he sprinted across the yard and reached the wall. His fingers slipped as he tried to climb, but he made it on the second try and sat straddling the top.
Benj stood with his back to the wall below. Several strays gathered around him, some baring teeth. The braver dogs sniffed at the wrapped food in Benj’s hand.
“Throw it,” Mika said.
Benj looked up, surprised.
The lead dog lunged. It snapped for the food as Benj cocked his arm back and launched it in the air. Meat and bread scattered, and the dog’s teeth barely missed Benj’s hand.
The dog-beaters shouted from the nearby alley.
“Run,” Mika hissed. “Run now!”
“But what about you?” Benj asked, eyes wild with fear.
His brother took off sprinting in the opposite direction of the dogs and the beaters. Mika hesitated as the big men fell on the dogs with their clubs, knocking them down, killing a few. Violence sent the animals into a frenzy as they fought for their meal.
Mika turned back toward the house and nearly screamed. Manager Cabrid stood in the doorway, staring at Mika with confusion. He wore his nightclothes and his hair was a frizzy mess. Then his dark eyes went wide when he noticed the open window.
“Thief!” the manager shouted.
Mika dropped off the wall. He landed hard, tried to roll, and smashed his shoulder into the ground.
“Thief!” the manager yelled louder.
One of the dog-beaters, lantern held high, shoved through the mass. “You, boy,” he said, pointing with his club.
Mika got to is feet and broke toward the street. He kicked and shoved, and yanked the paper slips from his pocket.
The lane was open ahead, and the lottery tickets felt like gold in his palm as he shoved them into his mouth, and saw freedom, saw the way out for his family, until the club came down, smashed against his head, and knocked him into darkness.
The basement of the Yser was damp and pitch dark. A window near the ceiling looked out onto the street above.
Fingers wiggled through the bars. Mika struggled to his feet.
“Are you in there?” Benj’s voice echoed off the stone.
Mike’s head still hurt from the blow, but he reached up and took Benj’s hand.
The fingers fluttered like birds.
“I’m here,” Mika said
“Was it worth it?” Benj whispered.
Mika squeezed Benj’s fingers and closed his eyes and smiled, but didn’t answer.
ps, The dog beaters might seem strange, but they were basically real. Medieval churches hired “dog whippers” to keeps strays from church grounds, for example. Apparently, stray dogs were a real problem in Europe at this time, and they’d break into churches, attack congregations, steal food, and otherwise be real annoying. Anyway, if you enjoyed, please share! See you next week. - DC