For Want Of A Grade
Published in Fishy Business: The Fifth Guppy Anthology
Blake Rhodes breathed in the crisp March air. The air was different on the outside, even if the outside was still Baltimore. Ten years. He had a lot of catching up to do, beginning with his daughter. Erica wouldn’t bring her to the prison. He could understand that, most of the time. At least she’d allowed his mama to be a part of Jessica’s life, and Mama brought pictures. He’d kept them all. His daughter’s life from birth to seven years old. She was nearly ten now, but the photos stopped coming when Mama died. Those photos, and a few official documents, were all he took from the prison, his only possessions of worth.
From the bus, he watched the fenced-in compound shrink from view. He thought freedom would be more exciting, instead the amends he needed to make weighed on him. The counselor had him list them in order. First was his mama. She’d worked so hard, in order for him to finish high school. He’d failed—school and her.
Two bus transfers later, he held his GED certificate out. “I did it, Mama. I finished.” A tear rolled down his cheek. Her grave-marker read only, ‘Belinda Rhodes, 1934 – 2004.’ Three years she’d been gone. When he made some money, he’d buy her a tombstone, with an angel on it.
He wiped his eyes as he returned to the bus stop. The next amend would be tougher. He considered just showing up at Erica’s, knocking on the door and demanding to meet his daughter. But the counselor told him to take it slow. He sat on the bench at the bus stop and called.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” Erica said. “And neither do I.”
“I understand. I don’t deserve your forgiveness. Either one of you.” He’d practiced these lines. “Tell me what I can do to make amends.”
“Unless you can help her ace the Maryland Christian Academy Test, there’s nothing she needs from you.”
“Yes, Blake, a test, to get into the best grade school in Baltimore. But she can’t go unless she qualifies for a scholarship, so she has to ace the entrance exam.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, because what else could he say? He couldn’t send his daughter to private school, and his genes weren’t going to help her ace any test. “Tell her I love her?”
“Good bye, Blake.”
The counselor warned him it might take a while, that not everyone responded to amends right away. He would earn his daughter’s forgiveness. She needed help, and he was her daddy.
He climbed on the bus and sat near the back. How to help his daughter? No way he could come up with the tuition, and stealing it was out of the question. He’d never stolen money. Stealing tests, though, that he was good at, until he got caught.
One problem—besides making amends, he’d also promised not to break the law. Which took priority? He should have asked. Maybe it was better he hadn’t. After he made amends to his little girl, he would stay right with the law.
Time to call on Simon.
The neighborhood bus stop had changed little, except for the 7-Eleven across the street. It was gone. No more Slurpees. The walk to Simon’s took Blake past his boyhood home—his mama’s beautiful garden reduced to a tangle of weeds, the white picket fence no longer white, with gaping holes like missing teeth. He tripped over the uneven sidewalk, worse now than when he and Simon skateboarded over it twenty years before.
Two doors down, the garden was intact. Not beautiful, but intact. Blake knocked and was suddenly a child again, asking if Simon could come out to play.
The door creaked open. Mrs. Slocum’s face had changed—sort of melted. But her eyes were the same, sparkling gold flecks in milk chocolate. “Blakey, it’s so lovely to see you.”
“Hi, Mrs. Slocum.” While most things seemed smaller, she was twice the woman he remembered. She pulled him into her ample bosom for a hug. Everything was squishy, but he didn’t resist.
“I’m so sorry about your mama.”
She held him at arm’s length, looking him over. “Simon’s downstairs.” She led him to the familiar basement, where he’d spent many a contented afternoon listening to music and playing Nintendo. The theme song from Super Mario Brothers completed the flashback.
“Turn that down, Simon.” Mrs. Slocum hadn’t changed so much, after all.
The music faded.
“Someone’s here to see you.”
Simon’s bald head turned, and his expression morphed from irritation to delight. “You made it!” He stood and pulled Blake into a man hug—more slapping than hugging. Simon was less squishy, but they’d have to revise his title. ‘The lean, mean, computing machine’ no longer fit.
“I’ll leave you two to catch up,” Mrs. Slocum said.
They sat in low curving chairs, about the only new addition to the basement playroom, besides the enormous screen.
“Video games haven’t changed much,” Blake said.
“Not if you’re using a Nintendo system from 1995.”
“Ah. So, how are you?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What do you think? I’m living in my mom’s basement, playing decade-old video games.”
“Totally.” The men high-fived like high schoolers before the fist bump. A blue light flashed in the corner of the screen as a beep sounded over the game’s music.
“How about some fresh-baked cookies?” Simon’s mom waddled in and set a plate on the ground between them. It smelled like chocolate heaven. “Sodas are in the fridge.”
“Thanks,” they said in unison. Each grabbed a cookie.
Simon watched her depart. “That should be it for a while.” He pulled a keyboard tray from under the coffee table, pressed some keys, and the enormous screen switched from Mario to a computer. “Dammit.”
Blake stared at the screen. “You didn’t want your mom to know you’re buying tickets to a play?”
“Not a play, the hottest musical on Broadway.”
“Oh, Simon, sorry, I didn’t know…”
“Cut it out, you idiot. I’m not gay.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“I’m not buying them for me. I’m buying them to resell, but those jerks in India keep beating me. Instead of brilliant algorithms, they use a hundred-thousand homeless kids on computers.”
“India’s homeless kids have computers?”
“You know what I mean.” He pushed away the keyboard. “They’re even beating us at white-collar crime now.”
So he hadn’t gone completely straight. “I need to do one more job. For my daughter.”
“Ah, Jessica. She’s an awesome kid. Erica’s going to let you be part of her life?”
“She will if I help Jessica pass a test.”
“So she is your daughter.”
“Jerk.” Blake explained about the entrance exam. “We need to steal a copy of the test so she can look up the answers.”
“Why not just steal the answers?”
“Because she needs to earn this. I don’t want her thinking Daddy’s gonna fix everything all her life.”
Simon laughed. “So what school is it?” He had his hands on the keyboard ready to type.
“Maryland Christian Academy.”
Simon’s head cocked like a retriever’s. Blake remembered the look. It meant trouble. Fun, but trouble.
“Are you serious?” asked Simon.
Simon seemed to debate something, then went back to his keyboard and entered the test’s initials. “The exam comes from a company in Washington, DC.”
“Just across Rock Creek.” Simon grinned like the boy he had been. “It’ll be like old times.”
“Like old times.”
Blake and Simon had earned money stealing and selling exams during Blake’s extra years of twelfth grade. Simon used his portion to fund community college. Blake’s had eventually gone to help Erica.
“I’ll take a few days off,” Simon said.
“You have a job?”
“Course I do.”
“Here.” Simon’s eyes never left the screen. The cursor flew too fast to follow. “I work free-lance. When someone needs information, or a certain…item, they pay me to find it.”
“So like a librarian?”
Simon glanced at Blake, a smirk on his face. “Yeah, a world-wide webrarian and a personal shopper all rolled into one.”
Simon had gotten weird. Or weirder.
“Have you stolen a big exam like this before?” Blake asked.
“Not this particular one, but I did steal the Law School Admissions Test a while back. That bought my computer and an awesome trip to Comic Con. The one for Med School has always been a goal.”
“So a private school entrance exam should be simpler, right?”
They worked through the night, mostly Simon on his computer. Twice the light blinked in the corner of the screen with the warning beep, and Blake grabbed up the controller and pretended to play Mario Brothers when the game appeared. Mrs. Slocum brought sandwiches once. The other time she informed Simon she was going to bed. “Maybe you can get Blake a job with the bank, too.”
“Sure, Mom,” Simon said. When she’d closed the door, he said, “She thinks I work for a global bank.”
On the exam producer’s company website, Simon pulled up a directory. “How about we find someone for you to meet.” In the old days, Blake’s role was distractor. He flirted with the teachers, or told them a sob story, while Simon broke into their office for the exam. If there was only one copy, he took pictures of each page with a Polaroid camera.
A window popped up with photos of people and a box that read, ‘Myspace.com a place for friends.’
“It’s a social networking site,” Simon said.
Clueless, Blake nodded. He’d been released from prison on a different planet.
“It’s like an online phone directory, except you can add whatever information you want to your listing. Speaking of which, we need to get you a cell phone.”
“You know I don’t like talking on the phone. My charm is in person.”
That earned a sideways glance. “You really should have taken a prison class in computers, or real life, or something useful.”
Not Simon, too. Blake wasn’t a school kinda guy. Never had been. Three years of twelfth grade finally convinced his mom, though prison probably wasn’t what she had in mind.
“Here’s one,” Simon said, as a young woman’s face appeared on the screen. She had long dark hair and a bright smile, showing straight white teeth. And they were all there, no holes.
Blake had all his, too. His mama gave him a mouth guard to wear “most any time you’re out of your cell.” And he’d done it.
“She might be a little young,” Simon said. “And she’s engaged.”
Blake went to the refrigerator for another Sprite.
Simon went back to the company directory. “How about Ms. Susan Hornbeam? Graduated from American University in DC in ’02. Current position is administrative assistant. Single. No kids. Has a golden retriever named Spot.”
“What kinda name is Spot for a golden retriever?”
“Just checking whether you’re paying attention. Her name is Acadia.”
The scrolling images froze on a photo of Ms. Hornbeam holding up a fancy cocktail. Her shiny eyes suggested it was not her first of the evening. Her face was round and pretty, not gorgeous, which was good. “Look here,” Simon said. “She has plans tomorrow night, at a bar right around the corner from the testing center office.” Some text on the screen turned yellow as the cursor flew by.
There it was, her plans for the evening, right there online for all to see. Well, all who knew how to operate a computer anyway.
“So, I need to get some clothes,” Blake said.
Simon looked him over. “That you do, my man. That, you most definitely do.”
Blake crashed on Simon’s couch for a few hours, showered, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, then hit the mall. Simon insisted on paying. “I still owe you, man. I’ll take care of this little mission.”
Simon owed him nothing. Friends take care of friends. Blake was screwed, caught with stolen office keys and exams from every high school in the county. There was no reason to take Simon down with him. But at the moment, Blake’s focus was on his daughter. He’d reimburse Simon later.
They rode the train from Baltimore to Union Station in DC, then the subway to within a block of the bar. Blake spotted her first, as she entered the bar in a dress that hugged her curvy form in all the right places. Ten years was a long time without women, not that he’d been all that experienced at twenty. In prison, he’d avoided TV and magazines and most books. He did get better at reading, but stuck to old novels, before they became graphic. Why torture himself with something he couldn’t have? Ms. Hornbeam looked amazing.
“Eye on the prize, Romeo,” Simon said, eyeing Blake.
“I got this,” Blake said. “No problem.”
In the old days, Blake grifted alone, but this wasn’t the old days…in so many ways. They entered the bar together, moments after Susan. She stood at a corner high-top, greeting two other women as only women do, with smiles and hugs and way more physical contact than necessary.
From nearby barstools, Blake listened intently to her drink order. Some kind of margarita. Even drink names had changed in his absence. Moments later, the bartender served her a bright pink beverage with salt on the rim. “So what makes that a pickled bear margarita?” he asked Simon.
The bartender laughed out loud. “Pickled bear?” He kept laughing, louder than necessary. “Did you hear that? Pickled bear margarita,” he said to pretty much everyone in the bar.
Ms, Hornbeam—Susan, he reminded himself—turned. If she approached now, her drink would clash with Blake’s face. And then, she did. She lifted the neon drink toward him in salute from barely a foot away. “Prickly pear,” she said in a sweet seductive voice. Well, female anyway.
Blake laughed at himself and returned the salute with his beer. “Enjoy,” he said.
He and Simon nursed their drinks and talked quietly. Twenty minutes later, as Susan drained her glass, Blake ordered two prickly pear margaritas and made his approach. He offered one to her. “You convinced me to try it.”
She smiled uncertainly, then accepted the drink. “I tried it on vacation last summer, and now it’s my go-to first drink. But I can make an exception tonight.”
Blake took a sip—the salty beginning, the sweet middle, and the alcohol ending. “Wow, it’s good.”
“Really? You like it? Most men won’t get near a fruity drink.”
“Most men don’t know what they’re missing.”
She smiled again, without caution this time. A beautiful smile.
He almost slipped. “So Su—ppose we introduce ourselves.” She didn’t seem to notice. They talked for several minutes, maybe longer, until her friends said good-bye, and he suggested dinner.
“What about your friend?” she asked, nodding to the bar where Simon still sat.
“He has other plans.” Blake stepped away to talk with him. They arranged a place to meet, and Simon slipped him some cash.
“Where would you like to go?” she asked, as they stepped outside.
He wrapped his coat around her shivering shoulders. “I’m new in town. You pick.” He knew it was dangerous. She might choose a restaurant beyond his means. Heck, a Happy Meal was beyond his means, and he had no idea how much cash Simon had given him. The first two restaurants they considered had cloth napkins and candles. Gratefully, they also had lines out the door.
As they passed a deli, Susan said, “I’m tipsy, and I’m starving. Do you mind if we get something here?”
“I was thinking the same thing.” Which was even true. He was back in the groove.
They ordered sandwiches and beer at the counter. He paid cash with plenty to spare. Simon must be doing okay. They chose a table for two in the back, far from the door and its intermittent cold breeze.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said.
Even her close-mouthed grin was attractive.
“I’m an administrative assistant.”
“That sounds interesting.” So maybe he wasn’t back in the groove.
“It’s not,” she said. Her grin flattening.
“What would you rather be doing?”
She swallowed a sip of her beer. “Writing. I want to write mystery novels.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I do, in my spare time. There just isn’t enough.”
“Why not write full-time?”
“Oh, a little thing called cash flow. Few writers can afford to just write, but it’s my dream, after I get good enough, and get published.”
“But how will you do that, if you don’t have time to write?”
“And therein lies the rub.”
“Ay, there’s the rub,” Blake said.
“Sorry, Hamlet. It’s always misquoted.”
“You read Shakespeare?” Her eyes shone wet and sparkly in the overhead lights.
Blake chuckled. It wasn’t often he was mistaken for intelligent. “For a while, I had a lot of time to read, but not a lot of books to choose from.”
The way she said it, it didn’t sound bad.
“Your turn. What do you do?” she said.
Blake glanced at the time. First contact required careful orchestration. This had gone on too long already. “How about next time?”
Her face fell, until she checked her own watch. “Oh my. Early staff meeting tomorrow.”
“That doesn’t sound fun.” He stood and helped her on with her coat.
“It’s not.” She swayed, and he put an arm around her waist. “Got a deadline.”
“That doesn’t sound fun, either.”
“No. But tomorrow night at eight, we’re done. Then it will be time for fun.” Her slurred words were somewhere between sad and comical. “Fun for me, but not for the poor kids who have to take that test.”
“Kids are taking a test at night?”
She slapped him playfully on the arm, nearly losing her balance. “No, silly. They go to the printer at eight.”
Tomorrow at eight. Not much time.
He walked her to her apartment building, gave her a peck on the cheek, and watched until she disappeared into the foyer.
Simon appeared from the shadows. He’d spent the evening checking out the office building. They shared information on the ride back to his mother’s house and came up with a plan.
Back in DC the next morning, Blake dropped in at Susan’s office, a triangular brick and glass structure wedged in a forty-five-degree corner northwest of the Capitol. Unable to find an office directory, he asked the friendly receptionist.
“Ms. Hornbeam is in Testing Services,” she said. “Fourth floor.” She pointed toward a bank of elevators.
Simon wanted to know about stairwells, so Blake hiked up, pausing on the final landing to catch his breath. He entered the brightly lit hallway and found the Testing Services office without difficulty—it took up half the floor. They must make tests for more than just Maryland elementary schools, Blake thought. He glanced through the glass entry, but didn’t see Susan. Inside, a receptionist directed him to her cubicle.
“Blake, what a surprise,” she said.
She looked great.
“I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d see how you were doing.”
“Fine. I’m fine. Sorry about last night. I must have been a bore.”
“No, not at all.” Their eyes met, and he hesitated. “You can make it up to me over lunch.”
She looked at her watch.
“It can be quick,” he said. “You have to eat.”
She seemed about to decline, then said, “Sure. I can take half an hour.”
“I saw a Mexican restaurant on the other side of the building.”
“Yeah, it’s good.” She stood and pulled on her coat. “Let’s go out the back.”
He followed her through a cubicle farm, maybe a hundred backs hunched toward screens.
No exams lay conveniently in the open. He looked for a place they might be stored, but came up empty.
Susan pushed open a door under a red EXIT sign. “Hope you don’t mind stairs.”
The door clanged shut. “And if I did?”
She gave a small laugh and gazed at him. Were those ‘kiss me’ eyes? He was so out of practice. Instead, he took the lead down the stairs.
Four flights later, the landing had two doors. One marked Fire Exit Only. He opened the other into an enormous garage, just as Simon had predicted.
“This way.” Susan opened the other door. No alarm sounded. She hooked her arm in his as they walked along the sidewalk.
“How’s your day going? You mentioned a deadline last night.”
“It’s going. Eight o’clock can’t come soon enough.”
They waited for a taxi to pass, then crossed the street. As they stepped up on the other curb, a skateboarder side-swiped them. Blake caught Susan before she hit the ground, but her purse flew from her arm, with a little help from Blake. The contents scattered across the sidewalk.
“Sorry,” the skateboarder yelled over his shoulder, but he didn’t slow down.
Once Susan had her balance, Blake dropped to his knees and collected her belongings.
No keys. Where are they?
Heart racing, he placed her Tic Tacs into the purse and felt for her keys. With relief he palmed them tightly together and continued gathering items from the sidewalk.
She knelt beside him.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“That kid is going to hurt someone.” He helped her up.
“That was no kid.”
Observant. He would have to be careful.
At the restaurant, he pulled the door open for her, then waited to let another couple enter ahead of him. Meanwhile, Simon came up behind him and slipped the keys from his hand, just like old times.
Over a lunch that felt more like an interview, Blake invented a personal history to complement hers. One of his many, rarely useful, talents. He made a mental note to write down the story. It was really quite good.
By the time Simon finally texted, ‘Bushes,’ Susan had her purse in her lap. “My keys. They’re not here.”
“I don’t remember picking them up.” Blake stood. “I’ll go look.”
He found them under a bush near where she’d fallen.
“Oh, thank heaven,” she said.
He accompanied her to the back stairwell, where they said another chaste goodbye. He watched which key opened the door.
The men regrouped at the same bar where they’d met Susan the night before. “They’re still on for eight tonight,” Blake said. “Did you figure out where they’re printing the test?”
“In the basement,” Simon said.
“How do you know one of those keys will get you in?”
“It won’t. I’m not going into the basement. You are going into the loading bay.”
Light-headed, stars flashed in Blake’s peripheral vision. He was the grifter, never the thief. Simon explained the rest of the plan. Blake felt no better.
At midnight, Blake approached the back door. It was different at night—lonely, threatening. He’d been in prison and didn’t want to go back. He thought of his daughter. Did she need private school more than she needed her dad? Then he thought of Erica. She was the gatekeeper. He had to do this.
He willed his trembling hand to still, and he unlocked the door. Eyes squeezed tightly shut, he pulled open the door and held his breath. Nothing, no alarm. He relaxed, slightly. He slipped into the dimly lit stairwell and closed the door behind him.
He turned the knob for the loading bay door, almost hoping it would be locked. It wasn’t. Inside was total darkness. With the press of a button, his new cell phone glowed, illuminating a small area. He explored briefly, tripping frequently, and selected a hiding spot as near the door as possible, but well hidden behind crates. He sat and typed a note to Simon, ‘In.’
A response followed soon after. ‘Good. Rest.’
Too terrified to sleep, Blake imagined his capture, and a return to prison. Would he get the same cell? Maybe he would take classes this time and learn about computers—much more useful than Shakespeare.
Arms wrapped tightly around his chest, Blake leaned back against the crates, certain sleep would never come.
He startled awake to a sound, and bright lights, followed by voices. It was seven on the dot. A punctual crew. Blake peered from his hiding place. Men in blue uniforms rolled dollies from a huge elevator, piling boxes near the loading area.
His phone vibrated. A text from Simon. ‘Status report.’
‘About to shoot.’ Blake whispered the steps to himself—touch the camera icon, aim at the men, touch the round button. A bright light nearly blinded him. The flash. He’d forgotten the flash.
‘Don’t forget the flash,’ Simon texted.
Blake closed his eyes and shrank behind the crates. Before they caught him, he would text the photo, so Simon knew what uniform to wear. He hit send, and waited. No one approached. His phone vibrated. ‘You took a picture of yourself, you idiot. And TURN OFF THE FLASH.’
Blake peeked again, two men leaned against the boxes, talking and holding coffee cups. The elevator doors were closed. With trembling fingers, Blake tapped icons: Flash off. Lens reversed.
The elevator dinged. He knelt, aimed the camera, ensured the image on the screen was of the uniformed men, and clicked. No flash. He texted the image to Simon, then sat down to wait.
‘Got it,’ came the response. ‘Have the uniform. On my way.’
Sometime later, ten minutes or a hundred, Blake couldn’t tell, the overhead doors rumbled, and cool air flooded the room, chilling the sweat on his back.
Footsteps approached. Blake’s pulse accelerated. Above the pounding in his ears, he heard Simon say, “Make it quick,” as a box landed on its side nearby. Tamper-proof tape secured the top and bottom. Blake opened the switch-blade he wasn’t allowed to carry, slit the box near the bottom, and reached in. He barely noticed the cardboard scrape his hand as he withdrew a single paper packet. ‘MCAT’ was written in large black letters across the front. He’d done it.
‘Got it,’ he texted.
“What’s going on over there?” a male voice yelled from a distance.
Blake’s heart seized. His throat seized. He feared his brain might seize.
“Oops, wrong pile,” Simon said loudly. “Sorry about that.”
He grunted as he lifted the box and disappeared from view.
When the first truck pulled out, Blake took the opportunity to sneak back into the stairwell and out into the cool morning. Simon caught up near the Metro stop, a blue uniform crumpled in his hand. They sat in the back of a nearly empty car. Simon asked to see the exam and then took photos of each and every page. It took nearly the entire trip. Blake didn’t ask why. Simon had come through for him, he was entitled to a keepsake.
When they parted, Blake thanked his friend, then rode on, up to Baltimore, to see the daughter he’d never met.
He found the address, an apartment building far nicer than he could afford. On the front steps sat a young girl studying something. She pushed hair from her face, and Blake’s breath caught. She looked like her mother, and Blake’s mother. Beautiful.
“Jessica?” he said.
She clutched her backpack to her chest and leaned away from him. “Who are you?”
“Ummm.” He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give her stolen goods the day they met. She wouldn’t want a thief for a father. He returned the envelope to his jacket pocket and smiled at her. “I’m Blake.”
“My dad’s name is Blake.”
Tears pricked his eyes.
Erica told her?
“But he’s in prison.”
“Not anymore,” he said.
She looked at him, less wary now, her brown eyes narrowed, her head cocked to the left. It reminded him of her mother’s expression when she thought he was lying, which was most of the time. Then, the little girl’s face brightened. “Perfect timing.” She released her backpack and patted the step next to her. “You can help me with this.” The booklet she held read, ‘Maryland Christian Academy Entrance Exam Study Guide.’
“I have to get a hundred, or I can’t go to this school, and my life will be crap.”
Blake cleared his throat, in part to hide a smile. Good parents don’t smile at swear words, even little kid ones. “I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry, but that’s what momma says—'crap.’ So I have to get a hundred.”
He’d stolen the wrong test. He couldn’t help her.
His phone vibrated. Then it vibrated again, and again.
“Someone’s texting you,” Jessica said.
He pulled out the phone and blinked several times to focus on the small screen. It was Simon. First was a picture of the test they’d stolen that morning. Then, ‘You can afford private school now.’ Last was an image zoomed in on the exam’s title—MCAT: Medical College Admission Test.