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ephraim ungar

New Fiction


by Rami Ungar

      “Here’s a gift for ye, m’ fine lad.” said the merchant, putting something in my hand. I looked down and saw that the merchant had placed a small black box in my hand. The box was longish, and was painted a different color on each end, one end green and one end red. The box was heavy, and had a pair of hinges and a clasp on each of the colored ends.
      “This here’s a special box.” the merchant went on, pointing at the box he’d given me. “If ye open the green end, then all the peoples in London ‘cept yeself will lose all their problems. But if ye open the red end, ye won’t get anythin’, but yer misery will spread t’ the rest of London.”
      I looked up at the merchant, or at least I thought he was a merchant, he was dressed all nice-like, and he was driving a cart with all sorts of big and fancy-looking packages. Maybe he was a deliveryman instead, or perhaps he was a missionary, because missionaries were the only people who gave out stuff for free.
      “‘Ow do I know which end t’ open?” I asked him.
      The merchant chuckled, and it was a really creepy sound, like someone had put rocks in a tin and had shook the tin up. “That’s yer decision, mate.” he said, winking one of his red eyes at me. “But make yer decision wisely. Plenty o’ people in Queen Victoria’s Britain ‘ave nevuh ‘ad a day o’ true misery in their life, an’ quite a few could use a bit less misery in their day. All up to ye, Fletch.” The merchant slapped the reins on his horse and the cart moved off before I could ask the man how he knew what people called me.
      I watched him go for a while before I walked off, pocketing the box in my coat. Who was that merchant? He’d had red eyes, which was something you didn’t see too often. Maybe his mother had had red eyes? I’d heard a preacher say that certain people had red eyes, but I couldn’t remember if it was drunks or heretics. I thought it might be drunks, because some drunks did get red eyes after a few rounds, and besides, I wasn’t even sure what a heretics was.
      I left Covent Garden after snitching a few pieces of bread and an apple, then went to Hyde Park for what me and the other street urchins called “the field.” In Hyde Park, especially during the Season when all the nobles went about courting each other and whatever, you could find plenty of people and that meant plenty of people to snitch from. I didn’t like snitching really, but I wasn’t a little girl who could sell flowers, and I wasn’t small no more, even though I told people I was really sure I was only ten years old. So all I had left was snitching. I didn’t snitch from everyone though, just the people with the nicest clothes, and only what was sticking out of their purses or their pockets. I figured that if it was sticking out of their pockets, then they didn’t care about it enough to hide it and they probably wouldn’t miss it. I’d been snitching from people for as long as I could remember, and I’d learn how to do it without getting caught, so by the end of the day I was able to snitch enough that I thought I could get a decent amount of food in my belly.
      Suddenly I heard a voice behind me say, “That’s an awful lot of valuables you have there.” I spun around and saw an old lady in a grey dress standing behind me, a smile on her face. Beside the old lady was a maid with pretty brown hair, looking back and forth between the old lady and myself.
      I took a step back and stared as hard as I could at the old lady. “I didn’t snitch this stuff!” I spat. “I founded it on the ground!”
      “I’m sure you did, young man.” said the old lady, still smiling at me. “So I know you will do the right thing and report those objects to the police. After all, I’m sure someone is already looking for them.”
      I stared harder at the old lady, trying to figure her out. Experience had taught me that all adults had something in mind when they were dealing with orphans. They talked nice and promised them things and then they went and made you look like a fool. I wasn’t going let this old lady make a fool out of me.
      “Why should I turn it in?” I asked.
      “Because if you do,” said the old lady, “I’ll let you join us for dinner tonight. Violet is making her roast chicken and it is very good. Isn’t it, Violet?” The old lady made a gesture at the maid, who smiled shyly and said, “I-I like to think so, ma’am.”
      I looked at the old lady and the maid, confused. I couldn’t find any sign to tell me they were lying, but these two had to have some sort of game or angle. What was it, though?
      The old lady smiled again, and I couldn’t see anything in it to make me suspicious. Then the maid flashed me her own smile, and it was really pretty too.
      Finally I gave in and went to the police with the old lady and the maid. The bobby who I talked to looked like he wanted to arrest me just for being an urchin, but he let me go after a word from the old lady and took the stuff I snitched from me.
      As we left the police station, I asked the old lady what would happen now. “Well,” said the old lady, smiling again, “I say it’s time we went home and had some supper. My name is Mrs. Warner, by the way, and this is Violet. Do you have a name, young man?”
      I wasn’t sure I should answer at first, but then I said, “People call me Fletch.”
      “Fletch.” she repeated. “It’s a nice name. Where did you come across it?”
      I blushed and looked away. “It’s a long story.”
      We arrived at the house that belonged to the old lady, Mrs. Warner. It was a small little townhouse in the St. James area, which was one of the nicer parts of London. I didn’t come into St. James often, because most times urchins could get chased out or arrested by bobbies just for being an urchin. Mrs. Warner showed me into the living room while Violet the maid disappeared into the kitchen. I sat down in a big armchair while Mrs. Warner sat in a love seat.
      Suddenly Mrs. Warner gave me a look and said, “Fletch, what’s that in your pocket?”
      I looked down and saw the box I’d gotten from the merchant this morning. I grabbed it and backed up into the armchair. Did the old bag think I stole the box too?
      To my surprise, Mrs. Warner just laughed. “I didn’t ask you how you obtained that box.” she said. “I was just wondering what it was.”
      I stared at Mrs. Warner, still not sure I could trust her. Then I said, “A merchant gave it to m’ in Covent Garden. Said some stuff ‘bout which end I gotta open when I open the box.”
      Mrs. Warner nodded. “Indeed.”
      “It’s the truth!”
      “I believe you, Fletch.” said Mrs. Warner. “What did this merchant say about opening the box?”
      “I think he said somethin’ ‘bout if I open the green end, ev’rybody in London but me will be happy, an’ if I open the red end, ev’rybody in London will be mis’rable.”
      “Will you be miserable too?” asked Mrs. Warner. “Or will you be happy?”
      I thought about it, then I shook my head. “I don’t think he said anythin’ ‘bout me bein’ happy.”
      “Interesting.” said Mrs. Warner. “I’d like to talk to this merchant about that box. No, I don’t mean to take it away. I just want to ask him about the box and where he got it. Have you ever seen that merchant before?”
      I shook my head. “I think I’d ‘member him. He ‘ad red eyes an’ I don’t think he was drunk.”
      Mrs. Warner raised her eyes when I said “red eyes”, but then she said, “Which end do you wish to open, Fletch?”
      I shrugged. “I don’t know.” I said. “I really don’t think ‘bout anythin’ but where I’m stayin’ for the night or what I’m gonna eat next.”
      Mrs. Warner nodded, like she knew I was gonna say that. “Well, I’m sure the answer will come to you soon enough.”
      “ ‘Ow d’ya know?” I asked.
      “Oh, I’m sure of it.” said Mrs. Warner. “People, especially merchants, don’t usually give out gifts with such power unless they know what they’re doing. If that merchant was telling the truth about your box, then he must have a good reason for giving it to you. Otherwise, he would try to sell it for a lot of money.”
      “A lot of money?” I said excitedly. “How much?”
      “Oh, at least a few guineas.” said Mrs. Warner. “That is, if you can find anyone willing to believe that the box contains that sort of power. Come now Fletch, don’t look so downtrodden. Dinner will be ready soon, so you should run a bath and clean yourself up.”
      “Run a bath?” I said, confused. “What’s that?”
      Mrs. Warner looked surprised for the first time, then took me upstairs to show me how to run a bath.

                                                                                                *       *       *

      I looked at the book Mrs. Warner had given me, trying to pronounce the letters in it. “Eh-Eh…Aay…Buh-Bee…SSSS-See…Duh-Dee…”
      “Still tryin’ t’ sound out ye letters, Fletch?” said Violet, checking on the stew she was cooking for that night’s dinner.
      “I bin doin’ it for a wake, an’ I still can’ get b’yond ‘K’.” I complained. “Why do I gotta learn these letters anyways?”
      “Mrs. Warner likes the people in her house t’ be able t’ read.” said Violet. “Ye do like livin’ here, don’t ye?”
      I thought of the soft bed upstairs and the meals I was getting three times a day. Even after three weeks living in this house, I still wasn’t used to it, not that I was complaining or anything. And Mrs. Warner was nice and all, letting me work around the house for my keep and trying to teach me to read. Violet tried to help me when she could, but often she was too busy with her own chores and the suitors who were always calling on her.
      Yeah, I liked living in this house. And I really liked the people living in it too; they were kind and they never hit me like shopkeepers or rich people did when they caught me snitching from them. Violet liked to read books to me in the evenings and Mrs. Warner would just knit quietly in her armchair when she was feeling well and make funny jokes or comments during really tense or sad parts that made us all feel better. Those books was the parts of the day I looked forward to the most, especially when Violet read an adventure story by Robert Louis Stevenson or a scientific romance by H.G. Wells.
      Violet said that maybe one day I could read one of those stories too. Looking at her though, I didn’t think I could ever match her, especially when she could only help me with my lessons when she wasn’t busy during the day.
      I continued on with my letters, actually making it up to “L” before I had to work in the flower beds in the front garden. As I was working, I noticed a man in a suit holding flowers walk up to the front door and knock. A moment later the man was let in and the door closed behind him.
      I looked back down at the flower beds and wondered about the man who’d just arrived. As far as I knew, his name was Mr. Kane, and he was one of Violet’s suitors, who’d been coming around for tea a couple of times. From what Mrs. Warner said though, Violet was going to end up rejecting him too. I didn’t know why Violet kept rejecting her suitors; maybe she just didn’t want to get married, which I found hard to believe. Weren’t most women supposed to dream about getting married?
      Just as I was finishing up my work in the garden, Mr. Kane left the house, looking mighty angry, and I guessed that he’d just gotten rejected by Violet. I smiled, wondering how Mrs. Warner seemed to know everything, and then went back inside and up to my room to get ready for supper.
      As I was heading up the stairs, I heard a coughing noise from Mrs. Warner’s bedroom. As I got closer the coughing only got louder and more violent. Somewhere I heard Violet saying something to Mrs. Warner, but I couldn’t make out what it was.
      I stood beside Mrs. Warner’s bedroom and listened in, trying to make out their conversation. I didn’t like what I heard.
      “…must send for the doctor, Mrs. Warner, you need t’ see him!”
      “I can’t afford to see a doctor right now. I don’t have much money left Violet, and you know as well as I do that if we were to send for the doctor, we wouldn’t have enough food to last us the week.”
      “But Mrs. Warner—!”
      “Please Violet. I know what you are going to say. And I think the world of you for staying with me despite my inability to pay you at this time. But I won’t accept you not eating so that I can see a doctor who will tell me only what I already know. And I certainly won’t accept Fletch not eating!”
      “You really care ‘bout him, don’t ye, Mrs. Warner?”
      “That boy has a heart of gold. He deserves better than life on the streets. He just needs a chance and he can do great things, I’m sure of it.”
      “Are you talkin’ ‘bout his magic box, ma’am?”
      “I’m saying that he has the potential for great things, whether or not he really has a magic box. And I don’t want him to suffer just because I’m a dying old woman. I saw potential in that boy, and I intend to bring it out while I still have life in these old bones.”
      They didn’t say anything for a while. Then Mrs. Warner said, “Violet, promise me one thing.”
      “Yes, ma’am?”
      “Take care of Fletch for me. He’ll need someone to look out for him, and I think you’re the best person to do that. After all, you were like him when we first met, weren’t you?”
      “Of course, ma’am. Of course.”
      I left just as Mrs. Warner started coughing again and went to my room. I sat down on the bed Mrs. Warner had given me and for what felt like the millionth time since I’d started living here, picked up the box the merchant gave me.
      Turning it around in my hands, I looked at the green end, fingered the clasp. If this box was really that powerful—if it could make people happy—could it give Mrs. Warner enough money to see a doctor? Or maybe Mrs. Warner wouldn’t need to see a doctor…perhaps maybe it could take away her disease. Could it do both? Or only one of the two? Which one was the better one? I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d ask Mrs. Warner when she was feeling better. After all, Mrs. Warner knew everything.
      Suddenly I heard a crash downstairs, followed by a scream. I ran downstairs as quick as I could, heading to the parlor where the noise was coming from. Inside, I saw Violet, being choked by Mr. Kane, while Mr. Kane was yelling at her.
      “Why? Tell me why Violet!” he shouted. “I know your mistress is keeping a fortune stashed away. You’re only staying with her because she’s paying you well, right? Please, I’ll give you anything you want, just leave that old woman and marry me!”
      “P-Please!” Violet gasped. “We have…nothing! We barely…’ave enough—“
      “Shut up!” snapped Mr. Kane. “Why do you continue to reject me? Don’t you love me?!” Mr. Kane squeezed harder on Violet’s throat while Violet cried out in pain. “Well, if I can’t have you, no one can!”
      I stood frozen for a second before I remembered my legs and ran to Violet. “Geroff her!” I shouted, tackling Mr. Kane’s side. Mr. Kane didn’t even budge, though; he just looked at me and whacked me with his walking stick. I fell over, holding my hand to my head, feeling something sticky underneath. I thought I heard Violet call out my name, but I couldn’t see her, my vision was all red.
      Suddenly I heard Mr. Kane talking, but I wasn’t sure who he was talking to. “I’ll get rid of the old woman.” he said, his voice full of creepy-sounding giggles, like he was a madman or something. “And I’ll get rid of this boy too, so nothing will keep us apart.” Then I felt terrible blasts of pain all over my body, each making a brilliant flash of red in the dark that threatened to take me under with each blast.
      Somehow I managed to stay awake. Feeling sore all over I watched as Mr. Kane left the room and headed up the stairs. A moment later I could hear Mrs. Warner screaming and Mr. Kane shouting at her. I wanted to run up there and try and help her, I really did, but my body ached so much. It was all I could to crawl over to Violet.
      I looked into her face; Violet’s neck was all black and shiny, and her mouth was open a little, as if she was trying to say something. Her eyes were closed, and no matter how much I shook her, Violet’s eyes wouldn’t open. Seeing her like that, I felt my chest go tight and my nose start to run. Throwing my arms around her, I started crying like I hadn’t done in years; if I tried, I could still feel Violet’s warmth, almost as if she was still alive.
      I heard a voice behind me. “Don’t touch Violet, you little rat!” snapped Mr. Kane; he bent down next to me and pulled me off of Violet. “She’s too pure to be sullied by the likes of you.”
      “Y-Ye killed ‘em!” I said.
      “Quiet!” said Mr. Kane. Then he started laughing again and the hairs on my neck prickled. “I’ll kill myself. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Nothing matters without Violet in this world. And I’ll place a knife in your hands, so it looked like you did it all. If I stab myself, people will think you killed all of us in a rage. After all, you street rats are all unstable little monsters. No one will think any different. It’s a great idea, isn’t it?”
      I looked at Mr. Kane, wearing a scary clown grin on his face. How could he look like that? After what he’d done to Violet and Mrs. Warner. They’d been so nice! They’d been…
      “They was the only family I’d ever had.” I croaked.
      Mr. Kane laughed loudly, tears rollin’ down his face. “A street urchin with a family! Who has ever heard of such a ridiculous thing!” he howled. Then he looked at me and said, “By the way, what’s that box in your hand?”
      I looked and saw that I still had the merchant’s box in my hand, my fingers wrapped around the middle. I stared at the box for a second, my mind totally blank. I hadn’t even remembered I still had it. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I should do; should I answer Mr. Kane? Should I open it?
      Then I looked at Violet’s face and felt the tears running down my cheeks again. Still crying I flipped the box over to the red side and opened it.
      As I opened the red side, the box shook as if something was escaping it out into the world. Beside me, Mr. Kane was talking, but I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to himself. “Stupid brat, there’s nothing in that box, I wish there was a knife though, I so want to join my precious Violet—oomph!”
      Mr. Kane let go of me and fell over, holding his hand to his head. Underneath his hand blood trickled down the side of his face and onto the floor. He looked around, as if he was trying to find someone who wasn’t there. “What in the blazes—?” he said.
      Suddenly there was a loud smacking noise and Mr. Kane doubled over with a shout. He looked around, his eyes wilder than before. “What’s going on?” he yelled, his voice breaking.
      There was another smack and Mr. Kane fell to ground. Before my eyes Mr. Kane was beaten by an invisible someone, kicking and smacking him around the room. I watched with horror as finally the blows stopped coming and Mr. Kane lay on the floor, bruised and bloody. He looked at me through a black eye and whispered, “You did this.”
      Before I could reply, a knife appeared in the air, floating into the parlor as if someone was holding it in front of them at arm’s length; I recognized the knife as Mrs. Warner’s carving knife. The knife hovered over Mr. Kane, bobbing lazily in the air. Suddenly, as if the invisible someone was holding him, Mr. Kane was flipped over onto his back, right under the knife. Mr. Kane looked up and screamed as the knife dropped into his chest with a loud splat. There was a loud cry as Mr. Kane arched his back, then collapsed and fell silent.
      I couldn’t move for a moment. All I could do was stare at Mr. Kane, dead, beaten and stabbed to death by…what?
      I heard a groaning from behind me and turned around. Violet was staring at me, her head raised up from the ground. I stared at her, unable to believe my eyes. It was a miracle! Violet was still alive! Mr. Kane hadn’t killed her after all!
      “F-Fletch?” she said, her voice quiet and scratchy. “W-What happened—?”
      Suddenly Violet cried out, slapping a hand to her forehead, blood flowing through the gaps between her fingers. Violet cried out again, her other hand going to her stomach as if something had punched her there. She looked around, trying to find whatever had hurt her. Then she looked at me and saw the look of horror that must’ve been on my face. What had happened to Mr. Kane…could it be happening to Violet?
      Suddenly Violet was jerking around on the floor, as if several people were kicking her and I could see none of them. Violet was screaming, calling for my help. I tried to grab Violet, maybe pull her away from her attackers, but my body wouldn’t move, as if it was being held in place by fear.
      Violet stopped jerking, and her screams turned into whimpers. I crawled across the floor to Violet, gently touched her shoulder; she shivered violently at the touch of my hand.
      As I wondered what I should do next, Violet was suddenly lifted up into the air, supported by nothing I could see; Violet’s whimpers became loud sobs, and she said my name again.
      “Violet!” I yelled; whatever was holding Violet up pulled her back a bit, then threw her across the room and threw the window with a loud crash. Violet disappeared in a shower of glass, her wide eyes looking right at me as she disappeared. I stared after her, my arm outstretched like I could pull her back if I tried hard enough.
      My arm fell and I looked at the box, the red side hanging open. I grabbed it and turned it over to the green side, undoing the clasp and flipping open the lid. Still crying, I prayed that something—anything!—would happen.
      I waited, but nothing seemed to change. The whole house was silent, and I was all alone. I stared at the box, wondering why nothing was happening. Suddenly I felt anger rise in me and started shouting at the box. “Bring them back!” I shouted, shaking the box. “Bring them back t’ me, ye hear me!”
      “That is beyond my powers.” said a voice; I looked up and saw a man standing over me. At first I thought he was the merchant who’d given me the box, but he had green skin and eyes, and he was dressed in clothes I could not begin to describe. “I cannot stop the red one’s rampage alone.”
      I stared at the man, my mouth hanging open. “Who—?”
      “I am the green djinni.” said the man. “The red djinni, my brother, is out fulfilling his duty, to make everyone suffer like you have suffered just now. I could stop him, but I am powerless to change what he has already done.”
      “Please!” I said. “If you can do something, do it! I’ll give you anything!”
      The green-skinned man looked down at me and said, “There is a way. I could reverse everything that has been done and prevent anyone from dying, but it would require a great sacrifice.”
      “I don’t care!” I said. “I’d give my life for them! Just please don’t let them die!”
      “You’d give your life for them?” asked the green-skinned man; I nodded. Then the green-skinned man asked, “Would that make you happy? If you died but they lived?” I nodded again.
      Suddenly the green-skinned man smiled and burst out laughing. “You have proven my brother wrong!” he said. When he saw that I didn’t understand, the green-skinned man said, “The merchant who gave you that box was my brother in a human form. He wished to prove a point to me, that if a human were to give up their life for their loved ones, they would not be happy, that they’d still want to go on living with their loved ones. But you just proved him wrong!”
      I stared at the green-skinned man, astonished. “What are ye sayin’?” I asked.
      “My brother chose you randomly out of the crowd at Covent Garden, gave you the box you hold now in your hands, and manipulated things so you would grow attached to the people of this house and lose them.” explained the green-skinned man. “He wanted to show me that you would not be happy losing your life for your new family. But you just said you’d be happy losing your life if your family could live.”
      I didn’t know what to say at first; I was mad that the merchant I’d gotten the box from had tricked me. But then I realized that Mrs. Warner and Violet would live and burst into a smile. “Can you bring them back then?”
      The green-skinned man smiled. “Once you have died, they and everyone my brother has touched will be returned to the way they were before. It will be as if the whole thing never happened.”
      “That’s a relief.” I said. Then I asked, “Does dyin’ hurt?”
      The green-skinned man shook his head. “I can tell you this much though,” said the green-skinned man, “I will let your family, and all of London, know of the sacrifice you have made. You will be a hero for saving them.”
      “I don’t care ‘bout that.” I said. “Just make them come back already.”
      The green-skinned man nodded and bent down. “I will always remember you, Fletch.” he said, placing two of his fingers on my eyelids. As he did, my body started to feel heavy, and the room around me started going dark. As I started to lose consciousness, I smiled; for some reason, I just knew that things were going to turn out alright.

Ephraim "Rami" Ungar is a junior at Ohio State University studying History and English. He has been writing since he was ten, and dreams of becoming an author on par with Stephen King, Anne Rice, and James Patterson. In his down time he likes to read novels and Japanese comics, or watch crime shows on TV.

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