For whatever reason, Michael was usually one of the last to leave school, chatting with other students, playing on one of his many Mattel handhelds, or simply wandering around the school grounds. Regardless of his reasons, his lack of a hurry to get home worked in my favour.
After waiting until he was alone, I strolled up to him for the second time today, my casual walk now ironed out to perfection.
“Hey Michael, whatcha playing?” I called out.
“Baseball”. He shot back, his eyes glued to the handheld, and the flashing red light that indicated the ball’s trajectory. With a practiced hand, he knocked a curveball out of the park, triggering an epileptic flashing of lights followed by tri-tonal beeping, as he mashed the buttons furiously, sending his batter back to home base.
“Nice hit.” I smiled, feigning interest. Video games were cool, but Michael wasn’t known for sharing. Unable to afford one for my own, my teenage brain had no alternative but to treat such a coveted piece of electronics as sour grapes.
“Curveballs are easy.” He bragged, resetting the system. “It’s the fastballs that really take skill to hit. Watch this.”
“Oh, that reminds me;” I continued, eager to call attention away from the object of my envy. “I heard you’re going searching for the Junkyard Genie.”
Michael flinched, and the glowing red fastball sailed right past his stationary batter.
“Junk Genie?” He repeated, switching off his system. “That’s just a rumour, right? What makes you think I’m looking for it?”
“Oh, I overheard Brodie Furlough interrogating some middle-schoolers the other day.” I lied. “He seemed pretty interested in it, so my ears kinda perked up when you guys started talking about it at lunch today.”
A look of irritation flashed across Michael’s face. “Well, I’ll admit I am a little interested.” He admitted. “But only a little. There’s not much I don’t have that I need to wish for, after all.”
“Oh, well in that case, you might as well not bother.” I shrugged. “After all, it’s a dangerous game. No point in risking your life if there’s nothing you really want.”
“What do you mean, risk my life?” Michael turned to face me. At last, I had his attention.
“Well, you know those other six kids that went missing?” I continued, reciting the tale I spent the last couple hours rehearsing. “This is just a rumour, but they say that they didn’t make it out of the junkyard alive.”
“Somebody’s filling your head with nonsense.” Michael laughed. “They probably just wanted to keep other wishers away from the Genie.”
“I thought that at first too.” I continued. “But remember what Martin said; Isn’t it odd that only one out of seven returned? Also, you have to go to the junkyard in the evening, right? Why not at day? Isn’t that just a little suspicious?”
“Well…” Michael started weakly.
“I heard something’s there, guarding the genie.” I began to embellish a little on my tale. I almost had him! “Think about it; if a genie really is there, waiting to grant any desire, why haven’t we seen more people with wishes? If it was just a legend, that would explain it, but that Daniel kid looks like he really got a wish granted. So why him, and nobody else?”
Deep down, I sincerely hoped that none of what was coming out of my mouth was true.
Michael gulped. “Why are you telling me this?” He asked.
“’Cause you’re a good guy, Michael.” I replied, putting on a friendly smile. “I can’t say the same for Martin and Brodie, but you’ve never done me wrong. It’d suck to have you dragged off by some monster when you didn’t even have a wish in the first place.”
I could tell my carrot-and-stick tactics had worked on Michael. Presenting myself as a concerned friend while dropping hints to a gruesome end awaiting him in the same breath; Now I just had to see if he really did have a wish after all.
“Heh, thanks for that.” Michael smiled. “I’ll pass the warning onto Martin and Brodie too. They may seem pretty rough around the edges, but they’re great guys if you get to know them.”
No Michael, the only reason they treat you OK if because they’re afraid some Chinese triad will drown them in the local pond if they mess with you.
“Sure, you do that.” I said instead. “But…does that mean you’re going after all?”
I wasn’t about to leave without my answer.
“Heh.” Michael chuckled softly. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Even if it means risking your life?” I pressed.
“I’d really rather it didn’t, but yeah, if it came down to it.”
“Wow, I didn’t think rich kids would need a wish. Are you really holding out for that billion dollars?” I asked.
Michael laughed. “I know it’s annoying to hear it from someone who looks like they have everything, but money isn’t all there is, you know?”
“It kinda seems like it is to me.” I shrugged.
“Trust me, it’s not.” He flatly rebutted. “You know, my family isn’t actually rich.”
“And I’m a full-blooded Cherokee.” I shot back. “Shalom, Kemosabe.”
“Shalom is Hebrew, you dingus.” He laughed. “Seriously though, how much do you know about my father’s business?”
I paused to think. “Well, from what I hear, he’s either part of a Chinese triad or he sells cars.”
“Close enough.” He nodded.
Wait, which part? Which part was “close enough”?!?
“Long story short” he continued, “My dad used to own a factory back in China, but he was tired of being just one tiny link in a long lineage of Chens. I guess you could say it was a combination of too much pressure from his parents and grandparents along with a desire to carve something out for himself, but he up and sold his factory and house, and escaped the wrath of our family by moving mom and I here to the good ol’ US of A. The irony is, with the money he made, he went and bough another factory, this time an automotive one, and he used the remainder of his fortune to buy the old mansion we live in. So, I guess you could say he’s back where he started.”
“OK, but he still must make a lot as the owner of a car factory, right?” I asked, trying to keep up.
“Oh, he definitely makes a cut and a half more than your folks make.” Michael laughed.
I slightly resented him for that comment.
“Still” he continued, “We don’t make nearly as much as you think we do. In fact, most of the money we do have is spent trying to make us look wealthy.”
“But you have so much stuff!” I exclaimed.
“And I’ll get killed if I so much as put a scratch of any of it.” Michael replied. “They’ll compulsively buy me the newest and greatest of anything from sports equipment to electronics, but they’d die before they saw me using a hockey stick with scratches in it, a faded soccer ball, or a frayed baseball jersey.”
I suddenly remembered that Michael rarely played sports.
“C’mon, your outfit alone much be worth ten of mine.” I countered.
“I’d take an outfit a tenth of the price that I could actually live in.” He shot back. “I never heard the end of it when I got grass stains on my white sneakers. I had to scrub them with bleach until I got all the smears out of them.”
“Your family lives in a mansion.” I spluttered. “You bring enough food for two of you to lunch every day!”
“Ever been to my house?” He asked. “The lower floor looks nice all right, for when we have guest over, but the rest I have to spend my weekends fixing up because we can’t afford to hire actual workers. In fact, most of the house isn’t even heated.” He laughed sullenly. “And as far as the lunch goes, that’s the only meal I get aside from a bowl of rice each day. My mom cooks it herself to make sure it looks like something “worthy of her son”, but I’d sooner eat jelly sandwiches and actually have three square meals a day.”
“Don’t you have an actual servant at your place?” I shot back.
“What, Uncle Zhen?” Michael laughed. “Oh, he sure looks the part, at least whenever he’s in public. He ran up some rather large gambling debts with the wrong people, and took a quick boat to the States when things got too hot for him. My mom left him our mailing address in case he was ever in trouble, but imagine our surprise when he showed up in person. To cut a long story short, he made a deal with Dad, and he now does chores around the house, mows the lawns, goes shopping, and all sorts of other things that make him seem like our butler, and in exchange, he gets to eat with us. My mom slips him some money now and then, but he’s probably worse off than I am.”
I had no words. My simple outlook on life came crashing down around me. In the end, I could only say one thing;
“And that’s the million-dollar question.” Michael smirked sadly. “Honestly, Dad makes more than enough for us to live comfortably, so there’s no need for all this deception. But in their eyes, living a lower-class lifestyle while looking like a millionaire is more important than being comfortably upper-middle class.”
He stopped, then turned to look at me. “The great irony is that even if we lived within our means, we’d still be the richest family in this town, but I guess that’s not good enough to justify the guilt of abandoning the family tradition. In some way, my parents feel like they have to live bigger than they did in China, or it will all have been for nothing.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “Doesn’t this ruin the secret?”
Actually, this could be good blackmail material.
“Well, to be honest, it sort of just slipped out.” Michael laughed, scratching his head. “I mean, you did make an attempt to save my life, so I guess this little moment of truth make up for that. Besides.” He smirked at me. “Even if you told everyone about this, nobody’d believe you.”
“So, what is your wish, then?” I asked, a little more acidly than I intended.
“Hmmm, it’s a bit of a long story.” He replied, ignoring my tone.
I bit back telling him that he seemed to be fond of those.
“Anyway” he continued, “My first time in this town was about six years ago, when we stopped by on a summer vacation to check out the Marlowe manor.”
“I thought your family only moved here last year.” I refuted. “You’re telling me you traveled here from China for a summer vacation?”
“Man, I’ve lived in America since I was four years old.” Michael shot back. “How do you think I never ended up with an accent?”
I did not think of that.
“Well, where were you all that time, then?” I asked, now curious.
“Back then, we lived in a worker’s shed behind my Dad’s factory.” He replied, his eyes sparkling with nostalgia. “It was pretty cramped, but I had a lot more freedom then. Dad used to let me play in the car shells after working hours, too. Nothing’s more fun to a kid than getting behind the wheel of a real car, even if it’s missing wheels and a motor.”
“That does sound pretty swell.” I admitted.
“Those were some of the best years of my life.” Michael smiled. “Moving forward a couple years, through a connection at work, Dad heard about the old manor for sale here, and he and Mom started getting all kinds of ideas. It was that summer that we took a trip out to this town and started looking around. Fortunately, Mom and Dad were busy asking questions, so I got to roam around to my heart’s content, and that’s when I met Jacob Schwartz.”
And there was that name again. “You mean you knew Jacob?” I asked.
“Knew him? He was my childhood hero!” Michael beamed. “When I told him my family was planning on buying the Marlowe manor, he was almost more excited than me. I guess he figured it would’ve made a great location for a new secret base. Of course, that was when people started telling me it was haunted.”
“I remember that.” I nodded.
“So, of course, Jacob told me he’d go take a crew of the bravest up there to investigate it with me. Really, I think he was trying to cheer me up, making sure I wasn’t too scared of my future home.” He laughed. “It almost had the opposite effect though, what with the other kids screaming at every creak in the floorboards and Jacob disappearing half way though, I was nearly ready to tell my parents there was no way we were living there.”
“You mean you were one of the guys that went on the ghost hunt?” I asked incredulously. “I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered you. You guys were the heroes of the school after you got back.”
“I looked a little different back then.” Michael admitted. “It was easier back at my old school, but in this small town, I was the only Asian, so I was super self-conscious. I used to wear a hoodie and baseball cap so people couldn’t see my face.”
“Wait a minute…” I paused, thinking back. “You were Demon-Eyes?” I blurted out, using the old nickname.
“Yeah, thanks for making a kid feel real welcome.” Michael smiled wryly.
“Dude, you scared the crap out of some of us.” I shot back, defending myself. “Because of your hat and hoodie, you face always looked shadowy, and we could hardly see your eyes, so a rumour went around that you lost an eye or something.”
“I had that kind of a boss legend around me?” Michael asked.
“Oh, it gets better.” I continued. “Anyway, a couple of us younger ones tried to snatch your hat on a dare to see if you had both your eyes.”
“Oh, so that’s what that was all about.” Michael chuckled.
“Yeah, but when we took it, you fixed us with this real freaky glare, then yelled something demonic at us and took your hat back. After that, your nickname became Demon-Eyes, and all us younger kids were scared to get close to you.”
Michael laughed. “Man, that wasn’t a glare, you probably just hadn’t seen an Asian before. And that “something demonic” I yelled was probably “give my hat back” in Chinese.”
“Well, whatever it was, it made you famous.” I grinned.
“Damn, that’s awesome.” Michael chortled. “I should’ve taken advantage of that.” He paused. “Where was I?”
“You were talking about your wish.” I prompted.
“Oh, right.” He continued. “Well, I guess you could say it was meeting Jacob that taught me what I truly wanted.” He paused. “I want to be rich.”
“Heck Michael, you just told me being rich isn’t all that.” I retorted.
“No, not that kind of rich.” Michael corrected. “it’s… how to explain it.” He paused. “Jacob…he was truly rich. He didn’t need expensive clothes to give him confidence or charisma, he had both in spades. He didn’t need game systems or sports equipment to have fun, he made up his own fun as he went along. He didn’t need to eat fancy; a grape jelly sandwich was enough for him.” Michael smiled and turned to look me in the eyes. “That’s what I mean by rich. I want to be comfortable enough in my own skin where I can be satisfied with whatever income I have and whatever life throws at me.”
“Wow.” I said. It was really all there was to say. “I never thought of it like that.”
“Of course, I’ll probably have to use my wish for whatever Brodie and Martin wish for.” He laughed. “Still, I’ll keep hoping that there’s a chance we can each get a wish in.”
“Man, what even made you hang out with those guys?” I asked. “You’re popular enough where you could’ve fit in with just about any group at school. Why those two?”
“Actually, that was Jacob’s advice too.” Michael smiled. “I had a lot of self-confidence issues. It’s kinda natural, I was always different than everyone else. Still Jacob told me that If I tried, I could do anything I wanted. However, he advised me to start by slipping into an existing group, and starting from there.”
“Why’d he suggest that?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better for your confidence to just jump on in and lead your own group?”
“Nah, he knew I wasn’t there yet.” Michael returned. “He said instead that I should unobtrusively join a smaller group and use them as a springboard to grow my own confidence. Test my boundaries and find my own place in life, as it were. And I guess, like any of Jacob’s advice, it’s worked so far.”
“Huh.” I answered. “That makes sense. But if you’re all full of self-confidence now, why don’t you break off and start your own clique?”
Michael laughed again. “Well, I kinda like hanging with Martin and Brodie. At the very least, things are never boring. Besides.” He grinned at me again. “I’ve still got a couple years left in high school, who’s to say I won’t start my own group after all?”
“Maybe I’ll join it.” I smirked. “You’re not bad, Michael…for a spoiled-rich chink.”
“Maybe I’ll let you in.” He smirked back. “You’re not bad either…for a low-class gweilo.”
We both laughed, and parted ways.
As I strolled home, flicking the heads off dandelions with a stick as I went, an odd feeling washed over me. By rights, Michael and his gang of troublemakers should’ve been my natural enemies, but this brief exchange had thrown a shadow of doubt on my simplistic black-and-white world view. I hated when that happened.
At least I completed my mission, though.ns18.104.22.168da2