An old story with a new twist
JACKIE AND THE BEAN-SALK TOWERS:
"Beans?" asked Jack, looking a little confused.
"Three magical beans to be exact, young man. One, two, three! So magical are they, that if
you plant them over-night, by morning they grow right up to the sky," promised the funny
little man. "And because you're such a good boy, they're all yours in trade for that old milking cow." ---
The doors of Hewgley Terrace clanged shut like a cage as Jackie Spriggins stepped into the building’s empty atrium and looked around. Gulping down her fear, Jackie’s eyes crossed the yellowed tile floor, past the tattered corkboard of notes, to the dented steel elevator on the far side of the room.
Okay, I can do this. Jackie hugged her pack and set off for the elevator as her uncertain shadow first advanced then fled as she made her way beneath the spaced halogen glow.
All day she’d tried selling her mother’s computer; pawnshops and the flea market, no one offering even a fraction of what they needed for rent. At the elevator, she unclenched her fist and examined the scribbled note within:
Apartment 803A, Hewgley Terrace.
Stepping into the elevator, Jackie watched as a man saunter through the outer door. He was dressed in stained blue shorts and a baggy white tee. He paused a moment taking a long drag on his cigarette before flicking it aside.
When he looked up, he caught sight of Jackie. His predatory smile glinted like a blade.
“Hey, hold the door.” He stuffed one hand into his pocket and swaggered over.
Frantically, Jackie poked at the number 8 but it wouldn’t stay lit.
“Those buttons tend ta stick,” he called cheerily. “But don’t cha worry, lil’ lady. Ol’ Dave will help.”
A tingle raced up Jackie’s spine. There was no way he was getting in. Jackie jammed her thumb against the button until her knuckle ached. Then slowly, ever so slowly, the door rattled closed.
“Hey, bitch!” He broke into a run. “Wait for me.”
The door closed just as he reached it, his contorted face hot with rage. Jackie collapsed against the wall not caring how dirty it was, just glad to be inside the elevator alone.
As the numbers above the door tracked her progress. the floors ticked off with quiet pings. When it hit 8, the lift jerked to a halt and Jackie stepped out. She stood in a cramped landing, a dented metal trashcan set beneath the elevator’s buttons and a wood-framed memo nailed above it:
All Residents Must Comply with
Oklahoma Housing Authority Rules.
Failure to Comply Will Result in Immediate Eviction.
Address in hand, she strolled down the hall counting off the numbers; 801A with the letters ‘BK’ spray-painted on the door; 802A with a green paper Christmas tree taped below the peephole, it was May; then 803A. A blue steel door like all the others but, unlike the others, 803A sported a camera mounted above it. Jackie confirmed the address then stuffed the note in her pocket. Taking a breath, she balled up her fist and knocked.
The light on the camera turned from red to green as a voice spilled from its speaker:
“Yeah, whaddya want?”
Jackie rocked from side to side squeezing her bag. “Hi. Um…yeah. My name’s Jackie and…well, a guy at the flea market said you might be able to help.”
“Look, kid, go sell your cookies somewhere else. I ain’t interested.”
The light on the camera turned red.
Jackie gulped and glanced down the hall. She couldn’t go home, not empty-handed. What would they do?
“Come on,” Jackie persisted. “I got an iMac Immersion. I really need to sell it and this guy told me you’d be interested.”
From down of the hall, she heard the echoing clatter of feet mounting the steps.
“Please.” She balled a fist and pounded. “You’re my last hope.”
“The light on the camera went green.”
“Do you have the haptic gloves and the VR visor?”
Jackie glanced down the hall. The steps were growing closer.
“Yeah, yeah, the whole set.” She dug into her bag and pulled out the goggles and one glove. She dangled them in front of the lens.
The door at the end of the hall rattled as the one to 803A opened. Jackie sprang through and slammed the door behind her.
The apartment was small, microscopic actually. A kitchenette sat on her left and an unmade bed and the shadowed recesses of a bathroom to the right. Before her, lay a ten by ten space with a sliding glass door overlooking the city.
Two card tables had been shoved against one wall, and a leather couch, once dark brown but now crisscrossed with pale creases, sat opposite them. Atop every horizontal surface in the room were stacked monitors, computers, keyboards, and boxes of parts and overflowing wires. The room was alive with an electronic orgy of yellow, red, and green flashing lights. Jackie’s skin prickled in the stifling heat and the smell of hot circuits.
At the center of it all, like a spider hunched in its web, sat a spindly man in a wheelchair. He wore a bright yellow tee-shirt and a wide, dark frown.
For a long while his magnified eyes considered her from behind a pair of thick, smudged lenses.
“Well,” he said at last, causing Jackie to jump. “You got somethin’ ta sell or ain’t ya?”
“It’s my Mom’s iMac Immersion.” Jackie pulled a white rectangle from her pack and laid it on the table. Then she set the visor and haptic gloves beside it. “It’s a Model 3, but in real good condition.”
The man powered on the cube, slipped one hand into a glove, and with the other, held the visor to his face. Jackie watched not realizing she’d been holding her breath until her lungs began to ache. She let it out with a sigh.
After a minute, he lowered the visor and slipped off the glove. “Sorry, kid. I don’t have much need for Model 3s anymore.” He rolled back his wheelchair and sifted through one of the table’s boxes eventually coming up with a lighter.
“Have you tried the flea market? Sometimes they’ll buy the older rigs.”
Jackie’s eyes grew moist. She bit down on the inside of her cheek; hard. She was not going to cry.
“Yeah. I did.”
He lifted the PC and held it out, but Jackie stepped back refusing to take it.
“Look,” she said. “My Mom can’t find work and if we don’t come up with 500 more dollars the landlord is kicking us out.”
“500?” He laughed, a dry, wheezy, contagious sound that had Jackie covering her mouth.
“Please,” she said again. “There must be something you can do.”
As he studied her, he pinched the end of his nose as if coaxing it to grow. Finally, he wheeled around and crossed the room, stopping at a desk before rattling open its drawer.
“I like you kid,” he said. “You’ve got guts.” He pulled out a baggie and dropped it in his lap. The rubber treads of his wheelchair squealed as he turned and rolled back over.
As he lifted the baggie, Jackie stepped away, her upheld palms flat with refusal. “I’m not selling drugs.”
“Drugs?” He laughed. “This ain’t drugs.” He leaned closer and smiled. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Jackie’s eyes narrowed. The bag held three grains of rice. Only they were silver and didn’t look much look like rice at all other than being about the same size.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Why beans,” he said. “Magic beans. The latest in subcutaneous chip technology.”
Jackie crossed her arms and scowled. “Magic beans?”
“Well, not magic really.” He dumped one of the tiny pills into his palm and held it out for her to see.
“Go ahead, take it.”
Jackie held out her hand and he spilled it into her palm. She rolled the thing between her finger and thumb. It was hard and smooth and glinted in the light. She handed it back.
“I don’t’ see how that’s gonna help pay rent.”
“The bean won’t, but what they can do might.” He sifted through the parts on his desk and retrieved a crushed pack of smokes. He tapped one out and lit up before puffing a gray cloud towards the ceiling.
“Ya see, them beans have been specially coded by yours truly.” He leaned back; his tiny gray teeth exposed in a smile. “When interrogated by any security code, say a car ignition, or a door lock, the beans analyze the frequency and through a process I’d rather not discuss and which you wouldn’t understand, determines the proper security sequence and unlocks whatever it is.”
“Like a cash safe?” Jackie asked.
“Sure, kid, cash safe, car, whatever you want.”
Jackie stepped closer but he pulled the bag away. “There’s one little hitch.”
A smirk formed on Jackie’s lips. Wasn’t there always a hitch?
“And what’s that?” she asked.
“A bean can only be used once. It’ll work again and again on whatever lock you opened, but it can only work on a particular lock.” He held up a finger like a bony exclamation. “And, the code won’t last forever. Most security systems have a rotating sequence which eventually locks the beans out. For high-security systems, that might only be a minute, for less secure locks, like a car, it’ll last until the bean runs outta power.”
“Power huh?” Jackie crossed her arms and scowled. It had sounded pretty good up until he mentioned the power. “Sounds like an excuse for when I get home and they don’t work.”
“Oh, no. They’ll work, at least once. Guaranteed.”
He shoved the iMac across the table and pocketed the beans.
“But maybe you’re right. This is probably somethin’ you wouldn’t be able ta handle.” He turned away and began typing on his computer. “More of a mature audience type of product.”
“I’m mature,” Jackie protested. “I can handle it.”
He looked up considering. “Okay, kid, ya talked me into it.”
He pulled out the baggie and held it out. As Jackie reached for it, he drew it back.
“No refunds,” he said, “and if you get caught with those, I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
Jack’s mother was very angry. She said, “You fool! He took away your cow and gave you some beans!” She threw the beans out of the window. Jack was very sad and went to sleep without dinner. ---
Jackie rushed into her apartment and tossed her bag to the table. “I sold it, Momma, I got rid of that old PC.”
“Oh, thank God.” Her mother stepped from the kitchen, the tears welling in her eyes. “This will buy us time for me to find a job.”
Jackie was already imagining an after-hours visit to one of the local fast-food chains. The beans would open the door and the safe. She’d heard from her cousin, Billy, that fast food places held thousands in deposits especially on weekends. More than enough to pay rent and a little left over to buy Momma a new PC.
In three quick steps, her mother strode into the living room and dropped into a chair. “Let me see it. Did you get all $500?”
“Better,” Jackie beamed. She unzipped her pack and pulled out the baggie. “They’re magic beans. They’ll open anything.”
Her mother sat at the table her face gone suddenly slack. “This is no time for jokes, Jackie. Let me see the money.”
“No joke,” Jackie said. “The guy guaranteed me they’d work.”
“Guy? What guy?”
“The guy down at Hewgley Terrace. I got his address from one of the people at the flea market.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus.” Her mother’s head dropped into her palms. “Hewgley Terrace is where the State sends sick people to live.”
Her mother sat for a long while. The sound of boiling water and rising steam cascaded from the kitchen. In a soft whisper, she said. “What are we going to do?”
The next morning, Jackie hopped a bus downtown, her pack bumped hard and heavy against her back as she marched up to the Hewgley tower entrance. Riding the elevator up to the eighth floor, she pulled off her pack and removed the crowbar she’d stuffed inside.
Jackie’s heart thundered. The crowbar felt heavy and cool in her sweat slicked palm. As the elevator door rattled open and she stalked towards 803A, her anger began to rise.
If a cripple didn’t have a problem ripping off a kid, she thought, He shouldn’t have a problem taking an ass-kicking from one either.
The door was open. Jackie slowed, pressing her back against the wall as she slid closer and peeked inside. The room was empty. She stepped inside to look around. A half-crushed cardboard box on the countertop was the only thing left. The only indication Larry had been here at all was a single computer chip lying beside a dead cockroach on the floor. The chip was on its back the silver pins jutting into the air, an electronic parody of the dead roach beside it.
As Jackie stood wondering what to do, a voice sent a jolt of fear tingling along her spine.
“Well, if it ain’t miss I’m too important ta hold the elevator, girl.”
She turned to find the perv from the day before standing at the doorway. He shuffled in and closed the door behind him.
“Where’s the crippled guy who lives here?” Jackie asked.
The perv only smiled. He stepped closer.
“I think the question ta ask is how can I make it up to ol’ Dave for bein’ so rude.”
Eying her, Dave salaciously slipped an index finger past his flabby wet lips and eased it slowly out.
“Cuz’ I got ideas on that very subject.”
When he reached for her, Jackie brought the crowbar down on his wrist with a sharp metallic ping. Crying out, Dave stumbled back. Jackie followed, dropping to her knees and skidding to a halt in front of him. She lifted the crowbar and brought its curved point down on the top of Dave’s foot. With a shriek, he hopped back losing his balance and crashing to the floor.
Before he could recover, Jackie closed in, crowbar poised.
“The next one goes right between your pervert eyes,” Jackie snarled. “Now tell me where the cripple went.”
Dave looked up; his blue eyes pale with fear.
“I …” He looked towards the door as if calculating his chances. Jackie swung the crowbar and struck the ground beside Dave’s ear. Its iron knell filled the room.
“I said, where’d he go?”
Darkness flowed across Dave’s crotch and pooled onto the floor.
“I don’t know, I swear.”
Jackie cocked her arm.
“Please…” Dave’s Adam’s apple bobbed in a gulp. “We call him Wheelchair Larry,” Dave said, “That’s all I know.”
“Where does he hang out. Who does he know?”
“I don’t…,” he began, then his eyes brightened. “Wait! A basketball player comes ta see him all the time,” Dave said. “He’d know where Larry went.”
“What basketball player?”
“That guy who retired from the Mavericks,” he said. “They did a big news story on him when he moved to town a couple years ago.” His eyes lifted in thought. “Cody something.” He snapped his fingers. “Cody Sayer, that’s it. He might know where Larry went.”
Jackie grabbed her bag and backed towards the front door. “Don’t follow me or you’ll be very, very sorry.” She stepped out and slammed the door behind her.
Jack ran up the road toward the castle and just as he reached it, the door swung open to reveal a horrible lady giant, with one great eye in the middle of her forehead.
As soon as Jack saw her, he turned to run away, but she caught him and dragged him into the castle.
"Don't be in such a hurry, I'm sure a growing boy like you would like a nice, big breakfast," said the great, big, tall woman, "It's been so long since I got to make breakfast for a boy." ---
Two hours later and Jackie was standing outside the Bean-Salk Towers. Everything she needed to know about Cody Sayer she discovered online at the library. An Oklahoma State basketball hero, he’d been drafted by the Dallas Mavericks as a power forward. Three years later, and a traffic accident had claimed his leg. Cody’s NBA career was over. The silver lining in this terrible turn of events was Cody’s odd insurance policy on his knees. Turns out he’d insured them for twelve-million-dollars. Despite the accident, he was rich.
From an article in 918 Magazine, Jackie’d also discovered where he lived. The article was only a year old and focused on Cody’s penthouse in the recently completed Bean-Salk Towers. Jackie pulled the ripped pages from her backpack and studied the tower then referenced the pictures from the column.
All she had to do was stop the guy when he came out and ask where Larry was. Her plan sounded solid until she saw him.
Cody Sayer was a giant of a man. He crouched through the Bean-Salk Towers double doors and walked with an odd lumbering gait to the edge of the circle drive out front. As he moved, he rose on his toes and swung his prosthetic leg forward before planting it heavily on the pavement and stepping again. He wore a pale blue suit with highwater, stove-pipe legs and a black pork-pie hat. A gleaming Mercedes sped from the parking garage and came to a halt at the entrance. The valet, sprang from the car as Cody shoehorned himself in, then sped from the lot.
He’s not gonna tell me a thing, Jackie thought as the Mercedes disappeared into traffic. Not in a million years.
At the back of Jackie’s mind, the thought which had convinced her to trade for the beans in the first place, raised its ugly head: What if the beans actually work? Her head spun with the possibilities.
Jackie strolled into a McDonalds across the street from the towers and checked herself in the bathroom mirror. Her nose was too thin, and her forehead too high. She cocked her head in a side-eye’s assessment. Her features were thin but maybe not so bad. The problem wasn’t her looks but her attire. The Goth look had to go.
There was nothing to be done about her hair but put up in a ponytail it would be fine. The eyeliner, though, had to go. She scrubbed her skin pink then stared into the mirror’s hard glare. The black tights and her fishnet sleeves were next. With everything stuffed into her pack, Jackie considered the girl in the mirror. She still wore her purple, sleeveless top with a ruffled black skirt but Goth girl was gone. Just a regular kid now. Nothing to see here.
The Bean-Salk Tower was an ovoid structure with a great wedge sliced from the section facing the street. On that side, the glass sparkled sky blue while the rest of the tower’s storied walls shimmered like a quicksilver veil.
Taking a breath, Jackie stepped through the building’s front door. She’d half expected to be challenged by a top hat-wearing footman, but the lobby was empty. Jackie’s heart pounded against her ribs as she made her way to the bank of elevators on the far side of the room. She had no plan other than seeing what was inside Cody Sayer’s apartment. Assuming the beans worked.
A sign above the elevators on the left read: Floors 2 – 30.
Above the two on her right: Floors 31-50. That was the one she wanted.
Holding her breath, Jackie pressed the call button.
She pressed it again, this time holding it down as she’d done at Hewgley terrace.
Letting out her breath, Jackie dug into her pocket and retrieved the beans. Taking one out, she held it over the pad. When she did, both doors slid open yet only one held a car, the other looked down on a concrete pit littered with bits of trash and what looked like a Red Bull can. A second later, and the car slid down and jostled into place.
That was weird, Jackie thought as she stepped inside and pressed the button for the fiftieth floor.
When the elevator bumped to a halt and the doors slid back, Jackie stepped into a long hallway with doors at either end. There was no mistaking the basketball player’s home. He had a portrait of himself hanging beside his door. At least Jackie assumed it was him. The work seemed blurry to Jackie’s eyes though she liked the artist’s rain-hazed effect. It showed a single white man rising above a sea of dark-skinned players, all of them in shadow. Only Cody’s arm was in bright relief, an ivory pillar topped by a bright orange ball.
Jackie slipped the first bean into her left pocket and took out another. So far, Larry’s magic beans had worked just as advertised. She didn’t want them mixed up. When she examined the door, she saw there was no keyhole just a black pad embedded above the knob.
She swiped the bean across the lock. With a ‘thunk’ it disengaged and the door swung open.
Now what? Jackie thought.
With a finger, she pressed the door open. Before her, the sky lay framed in pale blue majesty pinned between the framework of the room’s twenty-foot windows. Their crystalline expanse extended from the left end of the massive room to its corner on her right, then continuing halfway along the adjacent wall to where a floating staircase beside the front door ascended like a stairway to heaven.
Jackie was drawn into the room’s opulence as if pulled in by its breath. She drifted through the doorway, past a thin wood table topped with a ceramic vase and crimson flower, down two steps and onto a tan carpet as thick and lustrous as a newly cut lawn. She stepped past a white leather couch and looked out over the city.
Jackie had never seen its like.
She couldn’t imagine such wealth, such beauty. Everything around her shimmered in an otherworldly light. The painting of flowers on the wall, the pile of colorful pillows on the couch, the white obelisk coffee table, the …
Jackie’s eyes returned to the table.
Nothing she’d seen held any place in her world. Except for this. She stepped closer and picked up the spoon. It was a silver spoon with the underside blackened by flame. Beside it, almost lost in the table’s glassy brilliance lay a syringe. She’d almost missed it if not for its orange cap.
“Hello, Baby,” a raspy voice purred from behind her.
Jackie’s heart leapt into her throat. Almost too scared to turn, she forced her head around.
At the top of the stairs, stood the most beautiful woman Jackie had ever seen. Her skin was pale as milk, her blonde tresses framed her face and tumbled to the collar of her ivory robe. As smooth as oiled smoke, she descended the stairs and stood at Jackie’s side. She was tall. Taller than Jackie imagined a woman could be and she drank Jackie in with her nearly pupil-less, blue eyes.
“Aren’t you just a doll?” She reached out and pulled Jackie into a hug.
Her robe was soft as a lamb and Jackie felt the firmness of her breasts beneath, the scent of her made Jackie dizzy, jasmine, and flowers, and the warm breath of summer.
“Come, sit with me.”
She tugged Jackie to the couch and fell clumsily dragging Jackie atop her.
The woman sat up laughing before taking Jackie’s face in her huge, soft palms.
“I wish I had a little girl like you.” As she stroked Jackie’s hair, the woman’s gaze grew unfocused, almost as if she’d forgotten Jackie were there. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Her eyes found Jackie again. “Aren’t little girls always hungry?” She cocked her head and smiled. “Would you like me to make some breakfast?”
It was four in the afternoon. Jackie opened her mouth, but only a frightened croak escaped. She swallowed feeling the hard click at the back of her cottony throat then she tried again.
“Sure.” Jackie forced a smile. “Breakfast would be great.”
The woman took her hand and pulled Jackie across the living room and through a doorway to the kitchen. The giantess twirled across the room, pulling a copper pan from a hook above an immense marble island. She clicked on the stove and blue flames leapt from its silvery surface.
In minutes, she’d scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast, humming and dancing to lyrics Jackie couldn’t hear. When everything was ready, she scooped it onto a plate and waved Jackie to a stool at the bar.
As Jackie ate, the giantess lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall. Slowly, the giantess’ arms fell to her sides. Then like a great puppet whose strings have been cut, her knees began to buckle. She sagged forward at the hips then ever so slowly, she drooped towards the floor as her joints collapsed in slow motion beneath her.
“Are you all right?” Jackie asked.
The woman’s eyes fluttered open and she straightened mumbling something Jackie didn’t understand.
Time for me to leave, Jackie thought. She hadn’t been sure what to do once she’d made it inside the apartment and exacting revenge against Wheelchair Larry didn’t seem quite right now that everything he’d told her was true.
Grabbing her pack, Jackie slipped past the slumping giantess to the front door. With a final glance at the magnificent room, she stepped into the hall. The elevator opened and a giant stepped out.
It was Cody Sayer.
Before he spotted her, Jackie stepped back in and slammed the door behind her.
Ah, what's this I smell? The giant said.
Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll have his bones to grind my bread.
"Nonsense, dear," said his wife, "we haven't had a boy for breakfast in years.”
Jackie rushed into the kitchen and took the giantess’s hand. “Hey, wake up!” She tugged at the woman’s arm until, unbalanced, she was forced to take a step.
The sudden movement restored the giantess at the same instant the front door boomed open. A split second later and the giant called, “Hey, do I smell pizza?”
The woman’s eyes went wide as they bounced from Jackie to the hallway beyond.
“Come on.” The giantess took Jackie’s hand and dragged her to a broom closet and shoved her in. She studied Jackie through the door’s crack with only her nose and one eye peering in.
“Stay here.” The giantess turned and looked over her shoulder. “My husband won’t be pleased if he finds you.” She shut the door plunging Jackie into darkness.
From the living room, Jackie heard the giant call.
“Just a second,” his wife answered.
The door cracked open as she peered in once again.
“And for God’s sake, keep quiet.”
Jackie sat down and waited. She heard their voices from the living room. Held her breath as they stepped into the kitchen. Then their footsteps mounted the stairs and Jackie was left in peace.
After a while, she cracked the door preparing to leave when notes of a song caused Jackie to pause. The voice was muffled yet sweet and soulful. The tune was one she remembered but couldn’t place.
“Then sings my soul, My Savior God to thee, How great thou art, How great thou art…”
Memories carried Jackie back to hard, wood pews. Gram’s and Pap’s flanking her like bookends at church. She been only a child but remembered the musty smell of the hymn books, the silent rustle of clothes as people rose from the benches to sing. But where was it coming from? Jackie pressed an ear to the back wall and the sound seemed to grow.
She felt along the wall and detected a gap in the back. When she pressed her fingers inside, it widened. Jackie worked her fingers into the gap and pushed. With a grinding noise, a panel slid back revealing a door. Light seeped from beneath it and the singing stopped.
Cocking her head, Jackie listened.
There was nothing.
With nothing left to do, Jackie swung the hidden door open and stepped inside. The secret room was windowless, and the walls were covered in spongy gray foam. On one side of the door sat a table and a simple wooden chair. Opposite this was a chrome sink and a toilet. Beside that sat a pillow covered bed.
A boy sat on the bed staring at her. Not just any boy, but a boy who took Jackie’s breath away. His dark skin shone beneath the ceiling’s recessed lights; his close-cropped hair dark against his scalp. He was dressed in a gossamer gown and he stared at Jackie with dark, frightened eyes.
“Who…who are you?” His eyes darted past Jackie, then returned to her face. He kicked his feet to the floor and drew closer. He asked again this time with breathy force. “Who are you?”
“I’m Jackie,” Jackie said. “Who are you?”
“Can you get me out?”
There was something about this boy which frightened her. Not the boy but something about him.
Jackie’s eyes found the collar at his neck. They traced the thin cable snaking across the bed to a hook on the wall. He was a prisoner. A slave.
“Please help,” the boy said.
His name was Ethan. He was eleven years old. He didn’t know how long he’d been there though he told Jackie it felt like weeks. He said the giant came into the room sometimes. Usually, he made Ethan sing. Sometimes he touched Ethan. His eyes grew sad and he wouldn’t say more.
“I want my mom,” Ethan said.
Jackie examined the boy’s collar and the cable tethering him to the wall. A pair of bolt cutters would do, but she’d need money to get some.
After telling his story, the boy began to cry. Jackie sat on the bed and held him.
“I’m gonna get you outta here,” Jackie promised, “but I’ve gotta go home first.” She considered calling the cops but could imagine what would happen when some kid with a record accused an NBA superstar of child porn. She lifted his chin and met Ethan’s gaze.
“What can you tell me about this place?” She asked. “Anything will help.”
First, she examined the desk. A black and chrome box, about the size of a toaster, sat on top. Beside it lay a thumb-drive.
“That’s a gift card printer,” Ethan said. “He buys hacked codes from some guy named Larry. I overheard his phone call on how to get it running.”
Ethan shrugged and his eyes grew wet. “I guess he doesn’t mind me overhearing all the bad stuff he does ‘cause he’s gonna kill me pretty soon anyhow.”
Jackie looked up surprised.
“Why would you say that?”
“’cause I’m not the first kid he’s kept in here.” Ethan stood up and pulled the bed from the wall. Hidden by the mattress, she could just make out the painted over impressions of others who’d scratched their names there.
A chill ran up Jackie’s spine imagining what would happen if the giant should suddenly walk in. Despite herself, her eyes drifted back to the toaster-thing. A gift card printer might come in handy, she thought
“Do you know how this thing works?”
Jackie dropped into the chair and slid the thing over. It was heavy for its size, weighing about the same as her dog Milo or one of the geese at Gram and Pop’s farm.
Ethan’s restraint wouldn’t allow him to cross the room, so he pointed out where the giant plugged in the thumb-drive, and how the stack of gold cards fit into the hopper.
Following Ethan’s instructions, Jackie flicked on the power.
“What now?” she asked.
He types into the keypad and hits print.” Ethan said. “That’s about it. The card drops into the tray and he sticks it in his wallet.”
Jackie examined the keypad. Ten digits with two buttons below them: Cancel and Enter/Print.
When she tried to type in a number, it asked for a passkey. Jackie pulled out her last bean and waved it over the top. The display binked and the words:
Enter Gift Amount
Appeared on the screen. When she typed in a number, Jackie saw the display held room for only three digits. She typed in: 999 and hit: Print.
With a whirr of electronic wizardry, one of the cards was swallowed into the machine’s body. A second later, and a whiff of hot plastic filled the room as a card plunked into the tray. It was warm in Jackie’s hand.
“How many can this thing print?” she asked.
Ethan shrugged. “Don’t know for sure. He made me sing all evening once while he ran through bunches. I know the thumb-drive is what holds all the numbers.” He nodded to the one plugged into the machine. “He bought that one the other day, so I’m sure it’s loaded.”
A couple hundred cards? She slipped them into her pocket before stuffing the machine inside her pack. If this thing worked, she and her mom’s problems would be over.
Setting her pack down, Jackie’s noticed a button on the wall. It was hidden by the desk, so she’d missed it earlier.
“Do you know what this is?” She asked.
“What is it?” Ethan leaned over but couldn’t see.
Another secret door? Jackie wondered. With her hand hovering over the button, she thought. Or an alarm.
She pressed the button.
In case it was an alarm, Jackie grabbed her pack and made ready to run. Then a grinding sound began in the wall beside her. A section of wall pushed out from above the desk and slid aside. She was staring down the hall towards the elevators.
Jackie hopped onto the desk, then down to the floor just outside the giant’s front door. The picture was the doorway to his secret room. Or more likely, a secret exit for when the cops show up, Jackie thought.
“You’re coming back aren’t you?” Ethan’s dark face shone red as he strained against his tether trying to see out.
“Don’t worry.” Jackie reached inside and pressed the button causing the picture to slip into place. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Jackie wondered how long the giant would be home. She wondered if it would be better to come back when everyone was asleep. Then she thought of Ethan. How many days had he been there? With a shudder, she wondered if the giant would visit him tonight? Maybe for the last time? She pushed the thought away. She’d grab what she needed and return as quick as she could.
Down and down he climbed down till at last he got home and told his mother and showed her the gold and said, “Well, Mother, wasn’t I right about the beans? They are really magical, you see.” ---
An hour later, Jackie marched through the front door to find her mother waiting on the couch.
“Where have you been, young lady? Your school counselor was expecting you at four.” Her mother rummaged through a wicker basket on the table and fell back on the couch with a lighter in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other. Her hand trembled as she lit up.
“When the counselor called and said you’d missed your appointment…Well, I didn’t know what to think.” For several seconds, her mother puffed shakily at the cigarette, blowing wispy fumes towards the ceiling. “I thought, well I thought you’d run away.” She ducked her face into her palms, her shoulders convulsing with silent tears.
Jackie dropped her pack and slipped down next to her mother.
“Don’t worry, Momma. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
“Fine?” She pulled away and glared through tear-filled eyes. “We’re about to be evicted for God’s sake. We’ll be homeless, Jackie, and you’ve been…what?” She waved her hand causing the smoke to eddy around them. “God only knows what. Drugs, or boys.” She looked up and met Jackie’s stare. “Or both.”
Jackie shook her head. “No Momma, it’s not like that.”
She dug into her pack and retrieved the printer before setting it heavily on the table. Her mother eyed it suspiciously.
“And what’s this?” She asked.
“Free money,” Jackie said.
She plugged in the printer, typed out an amount, and in moments the card dropped with a ‘plink’ into the tray.
“It’s a gift card printer.” Jackie said, “and it’ll print all these cards.” She held up the stack of gold blanks.
Her mother let out a tired sigh. “And where did this amazing contraption come from? The same place you got the magic beans?”
Jackie pressed her lips into an angry pout. “Fine.” She sprang from the couch looking around the room. Then she had a thought. “You stay right here.” She grabbed the card and sprinted out the door.
In twenty minutes, Jackie waltzed back in, her arms loaded with Wal-Mart bags. Her mother simply stared.
One by one, Jackie removed the items in the bags; Oranges, and steaks, a package of AA batteries, a Blue Ray of Harry Potter, and a dozen other things she’d grabbed off the shelves and stuck in her basket.
Her mother lifted an orange and brought it to her nose. She closed her eyes and sniffed.
“I bought it all with this.” Jackie dropped the gold card into her mother’s lap.
Each card.” She waved at the table, “is worth $999.” She took her mother’s hands in hers. “We can make rent. We can buy a computer, You’ll get a job.” She reached out and tumbled the golden stack so they spilled across the table. “We’re rich, Momma, rich.”
Her mother’s hands roamed across the stuffed bags of groceries, across the oranges and steaks as if confirming they were real. Then she reached out for Jackie and pulled her into a hug.
“It’s a miracle,” her mother said, “a miracle.”
“I’ve got one more thing to do before all this is over,” Jackie said.
Something in Jackie’s voice caused her mother’s eyes to grow stern. “You’re caught up in something aren’t you?”
Jackie didn’t know how to answer.
“It’s gangs isn’t it?” Her mother’s hands, like a pair of roving animals, crisscrossed her lap until they’d discovered the cigarette pack. She tapped one out and lit up.
Jackie bit her lip wondering if she should say more. If she did, Momma might call the police and she’d never see Ethan again.
“No, Momma, it’s not gangs.” She looked to the door. “But I have ta go.”
Before her mother could stop her, Jackie was out the door with the new set of bolt cutters stuffed inside her pack. Before she knew it, she was standing beneath the picture at the giant’s front door. She tried sliding the picture back, but it wouldn’t budge.
She glanced at the door with a sigh then dug into her pocket and retrieved the bean. She half hoped the door wouldn’t open. It did. As it had before, the lock gave a loud, thunk, and the door eased back. Jackie stepped in.
The picture frame sky was overhung with the purple-pink glow of sunset as Jackie slunk through the shadows towards the kitchen. Halfway there, she was frozen by the sound of movement within. A split second later and the giantess stepped out with a tray of cheese and crackers in her hands.
The big woman stared a Jackie a long moment before setting down the tray and kneeling down before her.
“I thought you were a dream,” she said. She gave a little huff and shook her head. “But here you are, real as rain. She reached out and put a hand on Jackie’s shoulder as if to verify she was there.
The woman stood rising, rising, rising until she stared down at Jackie, her hand still on her shoulder.
“You’ll have to stay here, little angel.” Her grip firmed on Jackie’s shoulder as she turned her towards the kitchen and nudged her in. “Cody was very displeased when he found out his little printer was gone. The giantess reached up and touched gingerly at her left eye. Jackie could see that beneath the makeup, she sported a bruise. Opening the broom closet, she shoved Jackie in.
“So, you’re gonna stay right there until he gets back.” She checked her watch. “Which should be any minute.”
She shut the door plunging Jackie into darkness. A second later, and Jackie heard the screech of something being dragged across the kitchen floor. The door swung opened and the giantess peered in. Behind her was one of the dining room chairs.
“I just wanted to let you know, I’m very disappointed. After I cooked you breakfast and everything.” She reached in and tugged the backpack from Jackie's grip. “Stealing our card printer.”
When she gave the backpack a shake, the crowbar and bolt cutter rattled metallically within.
“You brought more trouble I see.” She shook her head with a look of sad disapproval. “Well, you know what happens to bad girls.” Jackie heard the giantess jam the chair against the knob to block it.
“Let me out!” Jackie pounded on the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Now be a good girl and maybe Cody will go easy on you.”
Jackie’s breath came in sharp, panicked gasps. What was she going to do? She opened the door to Ethan’s prison and found him standing beside the bed waiting. Unlike the giantess who’d covered her injury with makeup, Ethan’s face showed every mark the giant had laid across him. His left eye was purpled and swollen, and his bottom lip swelled out like a fish.
“I heard what she said?” A tear streaked down his cheek. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“Nonsense,” Jackie said. “We’re not licked yet.”
Jackie’s gazed drifted from Ethan’s bed, to the desk, to the chairs, and back. There had to be something she could use. Other than a pair of scissors and some tape in the desk’s top drawer, there was nothing.
The cable shackling Ethan to the wall had a thin plastic coating over steel strands as thick as a phone charger cable. Laying the wooden chair on its side, Jackie smashed off one of the legs. Wedging the cable between the scissor’s shears, she propped one side of the scissors against the floor then hammered on the other side with the chair leg. It took three blows before the scissors shattered at their pivot.
Jackie examined the cable. Only the plastic coating and a couple of steel strands had been cut.
Ethan dropped onto the bed. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” he sobbed.
He picked up one of the scissor’s broken sheers and held it to his wrist. Jackie wrapped her fingers around the blade. Felt its icy sting. The sticky heat of blood dribbled into her palm.
“Don’t!” Jackie said, the word came hard and flat. “We’re not done yet.”
Both of them froze. Jackie felt it first, a rhythmic vibration through the floor. They turned towards the picture frame door, towards the sound of their doom, the thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump of the giant’s limping approach.
“Come on,” Jackie ordered. “Help me lift this bed.”
The bed was of heavy oak and it took both of them to hoist one end so its front legs were three feet above the floor. Jackie pulled the cable taut from the wall and looped it around one leg, so the cable suspended the bed above the floor. Luckily, the frayed section lay taut between the wall-hook and the knotted loop around the bed’s leg.
“Now what?” Ethan asked.
“We climb on the bed and jump.”
They heard the apartment door open. It slammed suddenly shut. The giant was home. The sound of voices rattled through the walls.
Holding Ethan’s hand, they crawled up standing at the low end of the bed with the high end before them.
“On the count of three,” Jackie said, “We jump. As high and hard as you can.” She gave Ethan’s hand a squeeze. “You ready? On the count of three.”
The sound of bickering voices.
The giantess’ terrified wail: “I locked her in the closet!”
They leapt up and landed at the bed’s raised end. With a sharp twang, the cable parted, and the bed slammed into the floor.
With Ethan’s help, they shoved the bed against the entrance. Jackie grabbed one of the chair legs and handed another to Ethan before they rushed to the giant’s desk. Jackie hit the button and the picture frame swung open. When they slid out and hopped to the floor, Jackie reached in and closed the door behind them. As it did, she could hear the giant smashing down the blockade behind them.
Racing towards the elevator, Jackie pulled up short.
“What’s the matter?” Ethan’s eyes were big as saucers as he looked past her to the giant’s door.
“You go on.” She pointed to the far end of the hall. “Not the elevator, down the stairs.” As her eyes lifted to the ceiling, an idea began to form. “Ethan, I need you to do something on your way to the exit.” She grabbed his shoulders and stared into his frightened eyes. “Can you do that for me?”
“Great.” Jackie pointed to the line of recessed bulbs spaced along the hallway ceiling. “I want you to smash all those on your way down the hall. Okay?”
“What …?” Ethan’s gaze bounded between Jackie and the giant’s door.
“Just do it,” she said, spinning him around and shoving him down the hall. “Go!”
Jackie retraced her steps to the giant’s door smashing the bulbs as she went. They popped with a grinding crunch and a brief flash of brilliance sending glass chittering down her arm in a fine crystalline spray. Halfway to the giant’s door, the picture frame creaked and swung slowly open.
Dropping her club, Jackie sprinted to the elevator. She snuggled behind an ornate trashcan set beneath the call buttons. The only light in the hallway now came from the bulbs above the giant’s front door. As she watched the picture frame bang open, a pale form materialized at the opening, then like a lumbering pale spider emerging from its lair, the giant worked his way out.
“Jackie, come on.” Ethan’s whispered plea echoed down the hall.
The giant looked up as Jackie turned towards the sound. There, silhouetted by the open stairwell, stood Ethan.
“There you are you little fuck.” The giant stumped down the hall, the sound of his thudding progress mirrored in the pounding of Jackie’s heart.
Go on, Jackie thought, willing Ethan to run yet he stood at the doorway refusing to leave.
The giant was soon lost in shadow, but Jackie could sense his progress down the hall. The vibration of his approach through the floor, the grinding crunch of the shattered bulbs beneath his tread.
With a clang, Ethan let the door shut and sank the hallway into shadow.
Then she heard the giant above her. Saw the pale shadow of his arm punch the elevator button on the wall.
“Little shit thinks he can get away from me,” the giant grumbled.
Jackie raised her fist. She felt the hard kernel of the bean within.
As her hand reached the button, the elevator door rattle open… the giant stepped in.
His cry echoed along the long hollow shaft fading, fading, fading to a rackety, metal crash.
A minute later, and the elevator’s rising glow filled the hallway. The car’s inner doors clattered open and Jackie saw the ceiling shattered from above. Wires and broken tiles dangled from the ceiling and from the center of the destruction, a pale arm swayed from the rafters. A drizzle of blood streamed along its ivory fingers and pooled on the floor beneath.
Jackie gawked for only an instant before racing down the hallway after Ethan.
Then Jack showed his mother his golden harp, and what with showing that and selling the golden eggs, jack and his mother became very rich, and he married a great princess, and they lived happy ever after. ---
“I figured you loafers were out here goofing off.”
Jackie’s mother shouldered her way through the screen door and let it slap shut behind her. Her hair was pulled into a loose pony and drywall dust-caked her grinning face. On a tray, she balanced a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses of ice.
Jackie and Ethan looked up from the porch swing and smiled.
It was the first time in ages, Jackie’d seen her mother happy.
“We’ve been workin’ real hard, Mrs. Spriggins,” Ethan said. He hiked a thumb towards Jackie. “It was Jackie’s idea ta take a break.”
Jackie silenced him with an accusatory frown. Momma had only to consider the amount of yellow paint spattered across Ethan’s tight curls and ebon skin. If even half as much had landed on the walls, he’d have done a great deal of painting indeed.
With an icy rattle, she set down the tray and poured them all a glass.
It was nice on the front porch of their very own home. Of course, it needed a bit of work, but Momma had never shied from hard labor, and with downtown’s tall buildings a dark sawtooth on the horizon, she was close enough to get work in town.
After hearing Ethan’s story of his mother’s death and father’s drunken abuse, his life as a runaway, and his entrapment by the giant, Momma had allowed him to stay.
“At least through the summer,” she’d told them. “But once school starts, I don’t know what we’ll do. He can’t stay home, and without an ID, there’s no way he could be enrolled.”
Jackie leaned back, the perspiring glass chill in her hand. She wasn’t worried about getting Ethan enrolled now that she’d found Wheelchair Larry. She took a sip and closed her eyes, knowing that with a little care and the proper leverage, Larry would set him up for free.