A College Essay
This short story was inspired by several high school students working at the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute during the summer of 2015. On their last day of work, they shared that they dreaded having to work on their college essays, particularly variations on “when/how did you become an adult?”, pointing out “how do you ask that of someone who isn’t even in college yet?”
I suggested that, if they hadn’t undergone a transformative experience into adulthood, they should just make one up. Something like the essay below.
It was a day like any other. Classes were over for the day, and Walter and I were sitting at our usual table in the courtyard. It had been a slow month, and we were itching for an interesting case to come our way. Sure, we caught the 3rd grade hamster thief just last week, but that scumbag was so sloppy he practically walked himself to the slammer.
And then I saw her, walking towards us, staring at us with eyes as green as jade. I swear that gaze could’ve stopped a grown man’s heart. Mine must’ve skipped a beat or two, at least.
“Are you Walter and Ray?” she inquired.
“Depends on who’s asking,” replied Walter.
She dropped a small manila envelope on the table. I looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, and I discreetly peeked inside the envelope. It was full of money, at least ten weeks worth of allowances. I whistled approvingly.
“Lady,” I said, “you must have one hell of a problem on your hands to be willing to part with this much cash.”
“I need you to retrieve a certain item for me,” she replied, “an item of great importance to me.”
“Finding missing trinkets is small-town stuff, darling. What’s the catch?” asked Walter.
“Micky O’Hara, the 10th grade bully, took the item in question from me, and I have it on good authority that it’s in his locker.”
Walter and I looked at each other. Breaking into a school locker? Those were fighting words. Sure, I was probably the only person in this school capable of doing it, but we’d be on the business end of an expulsion if we got caught. Still, the possibility of sticking it to Micky O’Hara was too good to pass by.
“My associate and I will have to confer about this,” I said
I leaned into Walter and whispered, “what do you think?”
“Sounds risky to me, buddy. Plus, do you think you can do it?”
“The locks I’ve been practicing with at home are pretty similar. Pretty sure I can break into one of the lockers in five minutes, tops. Won’t leave any marks either. Micky won’t be able to prove someone broke into his locker.”
“Alright, I say we go for it.”
“Looks like you got yourself a deal. So what exactly are we looking for here?”
“A small porcelain figurine of a hippo. It’s a one-of-a-kind family heirloom of incalculable value, both sentimental and monetary,” she said. “Get it to me by tomorrow, and there’s several envelopes just like this one waiting for you.”
And, just like that, she walked away, shrouded in mystery. We didn’t even know her name, and it was probably better that way.
Walter and I came up with a solid plan. There was a school play later that night, providing perfect cover for getting into the school grounds. Plus, after working the case of Mr.Grundy’s disappearing homeworks last semester, we already knew the security guards’ routes like the back of our hands. We’d have no trouble getting to Micky’s locker unnoticed. This was going to be a clean job. How wrong I turned out to be.
Everything was going according to plan. Walter was on the lookout while I picked the lock, if you could even call it a lock. These locks were so flimsy I didn’t even have to use my toolkit. Just for the heck of it, I tried to open it with a paperclip. Two minutes and fifty seven seconds!
Finding the figurine was a bit more challenging. Micky clearly didn’t want it to be found, but I hit paydirt in a hidden pocket inside his gym bag. I took out the figurine but, before I could say anything, I felt the cold barrel of a gun against my back. I didn’t even have to turn my head. I knew who it was.
“So,” I asked, “are you doing it for the money or for the broad?”
“Both,” said Walter, as he snatched the figurine from my hand, “Our client and I have actually been acquainted for a while,” he said as he patted me down, gun still pointed at me. He found the revolver in my coat pocket, and put it in his own pocket. “Micky didn’t actually steal anything from her. Someone tipped her off about a valuable microfiche, concealed inside a figurine, that Boss Nash gave to Micky for safekeeping, figuring no one would think to look for it in a school.”
Walter threw the figurine to the floor, smashing it into little pieces. Making sure to keep the gun pointed at me, he carefully crouched down and fished the microfiche out of the remains of the porcelain hippo.
“She also happened to know a bunch of goons,” he continued, “who were willing to pay top dollar for the microfiche. So, I figured this was the right moment to go solo. For what it’s worth, if you knew how much this little piece of film is worth, you would’ve done the same.”
“No, Walter, I wouldn’t,” I said and then sighed. “So what happens n…”
Before I could finish, Walter laconically interjected “This,” and shot me in the leg. He knew what he was doing. It was not a lethal wound, just enough to make sure I didn’t walk away. It worked: I fell to the ground instantly.
“I bribed one of the security guards to testify that he caught you in the act, and had to shoot you when you tried to run. I suggest you don’t try to tell the Principal what really happened. I have a water-tight alibi; for all everyone knows, I’m at Uncle Joe’s Burger Shack, and I have several people ready to testify to that effect.”
Walter pocketed the microfiche and the gun.
“Well, it’s been real swell, Ray.” He winked at me, tipped his hat, and ran away.
As I lay on the floor with a bullet in my leg, my childhood came to an end. Because I was shot? Don’t be silly. I can deal with the physical scars. But when your best friend betrays you for a wad of cash and some green-eyed dame? Dealing with that kind of scar is what makes you an adult.