The boy sat on the edge of the wooden pier shivering as the ocean that once hugged him tightly dripped off his body in disgust, leaving only a thin layer of green sludge between his skin and the crisp air around him. The smell of dead fish rose out of the ocean grave and wrapped around him until his nose could no longer smell it at all. As the sun left the hazy blue sky, he watched the boisterous boats tread further into the ocean until they were eaten whole by the horizon. His stomach bubbled, gurgling as if to imitate a toddler drowning.
“You. Your shift’s been outta here for an hour,” a man, dressed in rubber rain clothes and black boots said. “We don’t pay ya to loiter after your deed is done.”
“You don’t pay me at all,” Pi mumbled, directing his eyes away from the murky green water and towards the man’s agitated eyes. “What? You don’t.”
“I pay ya plenty,” the man sneered, “for a rat-boy.”
“My name’s Pi,” the boy said, standing up, “ like the number.”
“Like your endless complaining…” the man said, taking out his wallet and giving Pi a thin, closed envelope that still smelled like the old, summered books that must have been stacked in between it at one point.
“That’s your paycheck. Now scram, ” the man said, rolling his eyes.
Excitement rose as he walked off the pier as he watched the silver fish jumping and spinning out of the water, and he clutched the envelope tightly in his left hand, his fingers trying to feel the edges of the bills, before assuming checks weren’t that thick at all. He looked out to the horizon, and seeing a mass of red tainting the sky, seeping onto the edges of the clouds, turned back and started running through the wide sidewalks, still moist from the thunderstorm the following afternoon. The rain rose out of the pavement and suspended itself in the air, leaving the air thick and muggy. Pi took a deep breath as he felt his cool sweat rush down his back, leaving goose bumps in only small lines.
Looking out, the sidewalk seemed as if it would never end, but Pi knew better. He took a shortcut to the playground, where a large field of rolling hills, tremendous trees and big mudstones surrounded it, almost as if it was a safe zone from a battleground. In a way, it was. For Pi, it offered comfort, knowing forever wasn’t always constant. The two mounds of dirt the browning grass covered would become flat, the pebble by the mudstones would be kicked away, and the pretend arrows and huts would soon decompose back into the soil. Pi sighed, looking briefly at the playground, noting the changes already occurring.
No one was there. The wood chips were an ashen hue, and the tall grass was better suited for cows than eyes. The swing sets swung in the wispy wind as the rusting metal cried and the wind wrapped around it. Pi glanced twice, left to right, before sitting on one of the empty swings. He locked himself in by hugging the chains and resting the check on his lap.
He smiled weakly whenever the wind would nudge him forward. It was as if his sister was still there, pushing him just enough to keep going.
"This is still our place," Pi whispered, his words not even strong enough to be carried by the wind, "Just our place."
Pi then looked down at the envelope. Never once in Pi’s life did he ever consider what life would be like if he wasn’t clenching a dried-up loaf of tomato bread, leaving unintentional crumbs for the mice to follow, his feet slapped against the sidewalk, clacking like a horse escaping from the chains of a carriage. This could be it. This could be the check to not only set him free, but to give him his family freedom as well.
“What are you looking at?” a girl said, her brown hair covered by her black hat with the exception of her messy bangs.
Before Pi could object, he found her sitting next to him on the open swing, taking off her glasses for a moment to clean them using the soft sleeves of her jacket, which was designed for some sort of computer RPG game which Pi only knew from advertisements he'd see in the magazines the hospital collected and placed in the various waiting rooms. He sighed.
“Looks like some sort of letter?” The girl asked again, putting the glasses on her face. Pi noticed how the red frames of the glasses complemented her pinkish-pale skin, bringing out the quiet, but nature imperfections of an average teen complexion.
“It’s none of your business,” Pi mumbled, shifting his feet, hoping that starting to swing would make her leave.
“Aren’t you a little old for that?” She said, but still started swinging with him.
“What are you doing ‘ere? Leave me alone.”
“My house is right across the street. I just moved in. This playground’s practically my front yard.”
Pi sighed again, swinging harder. The girl went along with him, pumping her legs harder the faster Pi got.
“What’s your name?” She asked him.
“He who must not be named,” he said back.
“Oh, you’re a Potterhead?” She asked. “I loved thos—”
“I don’t waste money,” Pi said, cutting her off with a quick tongue. “Can’t afford it.”
“What? No, a Potterhead is what people who read Harry Potter are called,” She explained.
“Sounds dumb,” he said, pumping his legs even harder out of frustration, jerking himself hard enough for his elbows to give and for him to lose balance halfway in the air. Panicked, his arms automatically reached for the metal ropes, and the check flew out of his hands. It fluttered through the air, before it was grasped by the other body on the adjacent swing.
“Caught it for ya’. Looks like a check,” She said, flipping it over, looking at every corner of the envelope, as if for another clue.
Pi glared at her as if he had more venom than a water moccasin.
“Give it back. Now.” He reached over and grabbed a part of her swing, hoping to make her lose balance the same way he did.
The impact caused her swing to end abruptly, but all that left the swing she was on was the girl’s glasses, which sailed off her face and into the muddy mulch. The girl let out a small shocked gasp and turned her head to Pi.
“I wasn’t going to steal anything,” she said, injured. “What do you take me for?”
“An inquisitive thief,” Pi said, short.
“Well, I’m not. I just wanted to know what was inside.”
“Money I worked hard for!”
He snatched the check from the girl’s hands, quickly pocketing it as she hopped off the swing and stumbled for her glasses. Pi eyed her harshly, but the look she gave him back hit his own gut. He glanced down in shame, and let his feet drag against the ground, pulling him to a stop. With one last heavy sigh, he walked over and found her glasses, slightly bent from the fall.
“Oh. Thanks,” she said cautiously, taking them.
“There’d be an issue if you couldn’t see.” Pi stated, still examining the mulch.
“Oh, these aren’t for seeing. I see fine without them.” She shrugged.
“Yeah, I find them neat, so I bought some the other day.”
While Pi stared at her with a twitch, the girl blew on the glass to clear out the dirt and slipped them back on, and glanced at her watch. The sky was getting darker.
“I got to go soon. I hope your paycheck is what you deserve.” She said, marching away from him and across the asphalt road, entering her house and shutting the door.
Pi moved back to the swing. He stared at the envelope one last time, before deciding the best time to open it was now, before anyone else could disturb him. He tore the top of the envelope, and let the check drift onto his hand.
He smiled. It was really there. His mind raced, hoping it was enough to spend it. His heart skipped, simply thinking about his plans.
“I could help my sister pay off those medical bills…” he quietly said to himself, as the breeze tussled his hair. However, the wind was not to blame for the goose bumps rising every part of his skin the moment he opened the envelope.
The check was there, but the amount was only three dollars and fourteen cents.