On the last night of my Speedy’s Auto Repair and Oil Change career, the cash drawer came up $100 short. I counted it at least four times, but it wasn’t adding up, and this wasn’t a small amount that I could easily have just miscounted. I rubbed a hand over the back of my neck and looked out into the aisles of motor oil and headlight bulbs. I’d have to tell Jeremy, the night manager. Picking up the register drawer from the counter, I pushed through the swinging door to the car bay. Billy and Anne Marie were still at work back there, wearing blue, grease-stained coveralls with rags shoved through belt loops.
“Hey, you guys seen Jeremy?” I asked no one in particular.
“You kidding? He doesn’t bother with the likes of us,” Billy, the guy closest to me said. “He’s probably in the office playing Angry Birds or something.” He snickered as he passed a box to Anne Marie. She tossed a blonde braid over her shoulder, looked at me, and rolled her eyes. I felt my cheeks warm as I smiled at her before turning back inside.
Delaying the inevitable, I decided to check the break room first, even though I was ninety-seven percent sure that the manager wouldn’t be in there. As soon as I opened the break room door, someone jerked around, making me jump.
“Goodness, Michael,” I said when I saw the kid’s face, “you scared me.”
Michael, a sixteen-year-old kid who worked almost as many hours as I did, turned around with a guilty expression on his face. He wore the same blue Speedy’s polo as I had on, marking us as front of the store employees. “Oh, hi, José. Sorry,” he mumbled, and then I saw the reason for his expression. A textbook lay open on the small table beside the lockers, highlighters shoved in several places as bookmarks.
“You better not let Jeremy see you studying on company time,” I warned him. Michael looked down at his feet.
“Yeah, I know. It’s just, I have a chemistry test tomorrow, and I’ve already missed so much this semester—”
But he didn’t get to finish whatever it was he was saying.
“What’s the hold up?” Jeremy’s voice cut through the air from outside. “Let’s get the cash in the safe so we can get out of here already.”
I gave Michael a look and stepped out of the break room. “Hey, Jeremy,” I said, “I need to talk to you.” I pushed into the office and dropped the cash drawer on the desk.
“What’s this?” Jeremy said when he followed me in. He rounded the desk and raised his eyebrows at me.
“I couldn’t balance out the drawer. It’s a hundred dollars short.”
Jeremy scratched the scruff on his chin, looking between me and the drawer. “You’re sure you didn’t miscount?”
Shoving my hands in my pockets, I nodded. “Maybe someone rang something up wrong?” I suggested. That had to be it, right? There was no way one of us would be stupid enough to rob the place.
But Jeremy looked unconvinced. “Go call the others, we need to talk in the store.” He pulled some cash out of the drawer and started counting.
I nodded and turned on my heel, trying to calm the erratic beating of my heart. I did not need trouble today, not when I was so close to finally reaching my savings goal and chasing my dreams. Since graduating from the community college last December with a so-far useless degree in communication, I hadn’t been able to find a job in my field; if I’m being honest, I was never very passionate about communication. It just seemed like something I could use. It wasn’t until my last semester in college that I discovered my knack for photography. So far I’ve only been able to use my phone camera or the decrepit second-hand Nikon that’s definitely seen better days, but I’ve been saving up for a decent camera all year. Last night, I’d found my dream camera in good condition on Craigslist and contacted to owner to check it out after work. If it was in as good a condition as the listing said, I was ready to haggle and buy it on the spot. The last thing I needed was for someone to go and mess that up for me.
I pushed through the door to the car bays again and called out for the guys to come into the store. Michael must’ve heard me too, because the door to the break room silently opened and he slipped out to join the rest. Billy, Anne Marie, Michael and I all filed into the store, standing in a semicircle around the front counter. Billy had unzipped the top half of his coverall and let it dangle from his waist with only a sweaty sleeveless undershirt on underneath. I averted my eyes and caught sight of Anne Marie miming gagging from behind Billy. I smiled, and then Jeremy entered.
He stood behind the red counter and slapped his palms down on top of it. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “The cash drawer is a hundred bucks short, so either one of you messed up real bad at the register, or one of you is a thief. Either way, if you’re up front about it now, we won’t have to get the police involved, and you might even be able to keep your job.”
I looked around at the others, who were also looking around, sizing each other up. Anne Marie shot a quizzical glance my way, but I just shrugged. Billy grunted and folded his arms, and Michael just looked scared. No doubt the mention of police involvement was just as unwelcome to the others as it was to me. No one said a word.
“Well, in that case, we’re going to have to do some one-on-one interrogations,” Jeremy said. He tried to sound stern, but I could see the excited glint in his eyes plain as day. “Billy, you’re first. Come to my office.”
Jeremy trotted off toward the office, and for a second I thought Billy wouldn’t go. He had murder in his eyes and strength in his stance. But then he muttered a colorful expression under his breath and followed Jeremy to the back. The office door closed.
With the immediate threat gone, the tension I hadn’t noticed building up in my shoulders relaxed. I looked at Anne Marie. “Do you think Billy could have made a mistake?” I asked. The cash register was stupidly simple to use, but then again, Billy didn’t always seem to be the brightest bulb in the box.
Anne Marie shook her head. “I doubt it,” she said, her hazel eyes clouding with confusion. “He was only out here a couple times today, and neither time would have been easy to mess up that bad. Are you sure you didn’t just miscount it?”
I shoved my hands into my pockets and shrugged. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I counted it right. I recounted it, like, four times, and there’s no way I could have just misplaced a hundred bucks. It was a slow day out here.” I looked at Michael. “What do you think happened?”
Michael bit his lip and shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the register malfunctioned or something?”
That seemed unlikely, but the idea that one of us would have stolen money right from the cash drawer seemed just as unlikely, so what did I know?
Billy emerged from the back. “Annie,” he called gruffly, “he wants you next.”
Anne Marie rolled her eyes at the nickname he had for her but went out anyway. Billy crashed through to the car bays, leaving Michael and me alone.
“So, uh, how’s chemistry?” I asked, feeling awkward. I’d worked with this kid for the better part of six months and still knew very little about him other than he was in high school, spent too many hours working, and I didn’t think his mom had a job. Or if she did, she had weird hours, because I’d seen her come by the shop before at random times.
Michael scuffed his dirty white sneaker on the linoleum floor and shrugged. “It’s alright. There’s too many formulas.”
We fell into silence. I heard Anne Marie’s voice raised from the back, but it was too muffled to know what she was saying.
Finally, she stormed back out to the front, muttering something about a stuck up, self-righteous pig. “Michael, it’s your turn.”
Michael shuffled off without a word, and Anne Marie followed Billy out to the car bay.
I meandered around the shop while I waited, straightening bottles of coolant and rearranging the pyramid of brake fluid. I don’t know why my stomach was twisting itself into knots. I knew I had nothing to hide, but what if Jeremy pinned it on me anyway? Michael wasn’t gone long enough for me to calm down. He reappeared after a couple minutes and told me Jeremy was ready for me. I tried to smile at him as I walked by, but I’m sure it looked more like a pained grimace.
Jeremy was leaning back in the office chair behind a cheap desk, its plastic covering peeling off to reveal the particle board underneath. He gestured for me to sit, but I just stood behind the other chair.
“José, you’ve been with us for what, six, seven months?”
“Six.” I didn’t want to give him any more than was absolutely necessary; he could twist anything I said, and I wanted to see where he was going with this first.
“And you’re a college graduate, yes?”
“That’s unusual for a place like this,” he said, a little smile playing at the corner of his lips. “Usually college graduates are so ready to”—he used air quotes here—“make their mark on the world.”
I didn’t respond. What was I supposed to say?
Jeremy folded his hands and leaned across the desk. “This isn’t your passion,” he said quietly. “This isn’t what you want to be doing with your life. You’ve got other plans for after you leave Speedy’s, right?”
He grinned at that. “And a little boost to your savings couldn’t hurt that, now, could it?”
“I didn’t steal any money,” I said, anger twisting in my gut and heating my face. “If I had stolen a hundred bucks, I wouldn’t have marched in here after counting the drawer, now, would I?”
“Unless you thought that’s just what would protect you,” he said. “Do you think I’m an idiot, José?”
Right then, I thought I’d better keep my opinion of him to myself. My hands curled into fists at my sides, and I didn’t say anything.
He looked at me for another moment. “Well, if you’re so innocent, you won’t mind turning out your pockets.”
He was being ridiculous and melodramatic, but if this would make the interrogation end, I’d play along. I emptied my pockets, pulling out nothing but lint, gum wrappers, and loose change.
“There, happy?” I said, more forcefully than I meant to.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “Your pockets aren’t the only places you could hide something here,” he said, standing up. He pushed past me to the door, and when he opened it, he yelled so everyone could hear. “It’s time to check the lockers!”
My stomach dropped. I knew what he would find in my locker, and, knowing Jeremy, he’d run with it.
Michael, Anne Marie, and Billy all shoved into the breakroom behind Jeremy and me.
“Let’s start with you, José, since you’re so ready to prove your innocence.”
“I didn’t steal the money,” I said again, quietly this time so only Jeremy could hear. But he wasn’t listening.
“That locker is on company property, so you’ll open it now, or I’ll force it open.”
So, I did. With trembling fingers, feeling the eyes of everyone on my back, I twisted my combination into the lock and swung the little metal door wide open. Jeremy stepped forward immediately to rifle through my forgotten jackets and days-old lunchboxes until he found it. Tucked in a corner behind my blue Nalgene rested a long white envelope. Jeremy’s greedy fingers snatched the envelope, and he cast a sidelong glance at me.
“My, my, what’s this?” he said, glee tracing his words.
“It’s not—that’s not—” I tried to explain, but the words caught in my throat.
Jeremy flipped open the envelope, and his eyes widened. Even from where I stood, I could see the wad of cash stuffed in it. Of all the days I could have agreed to meet that guy for the camera, why today? Behind me, Michael made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a whimper, and Anne Marie and Billy shifted their feet and murmured something.
“That’s my money,” I said, finally able to use my voice. “I didn’t steal that. Those are all the tips I’ve gotten for the past four months, and I earned every penny.”
But I might as well not have spoken. Jeremy was counting all the cash now, silently mouthing each number as he went. When he finished, he looked up at me and quirked an eyebrow.
“There’s four hundred and forty dollars in here,” he said.
I know, I thought sullenly. I’ve been saving that money for months. And I was so close too. The Canon EOS Rebel I’d had my eye on for months was finally within my grasp. I was finally going to have a camera good enough to take that photography class, and I wouldn’t even have to be late on rent to do it. Jeremy went to count the money again, but I snatched the envelope out of his grasp.
Jeremy folded his arms and leveled a stare at me. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” he said coolly. “You’re going to admit what you did and return the hundred bucks, and I’m not going to involve the police.”
My ears were flaming, and my heart was pounding in my chest. “But I haven’t done anything wrong,” I ground out through gritted teeth. Jeremy stepped forward, and I instinctively stepped back. Anne Marie and Billy shifted behind me, and I could see Michael’s face from the corner of my eye.
“Admit it or don’t, get the police involved or don’t, but either way, you’re fired.”
My mouth dropped open. “You can’t—”
Jeremy pulled a handful of bills out of the envelope. “I’ll be confiscating a hundred bucks from here,” he said, “and you should just be glad I’m not reporting you to the cops.”
I was about to tell him he could go ahead and call the police, I didn’t care, when I caught sight of Michael’s face. He was biting his lip so hard it was colorless, and deep lines were etched between his eyebrows, and he wasn’t looking at either Jeremy or me, and it clicked in place. I must have been an idiot to miss it.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t owe this kid anything. For all I knew, he’d been stealing from Speedy’s for as long as he’d worked here. But something in my gut told me that wasn’t the case, and as much as I didn’t want to, I knew what I had to do.
I reached in the envelope, withdrew one hundred dollars and pressed the cash into Jeremy’s triumphant hand without a word. Billy and Anne Marie gasped and shook their heads before turning their backs on me and going to finish closing up. Michael didn’t move.
“Well, that’s that,” Jeremy said, turning to head back to the office. He stopped in the doorway and looked over his shoulder at me. “Hope you weren’t planning to use me as a reference for your resume; I wouldn’t have very nice things to say.” He pushed out of the room.
I pulled everything from my locker and piled it into one of my jackets like a rucksack. Michael seemed to be very interested in his shoes.
“Follow me,” I said quietly as I headed for the door. He didn’t resist, falling in step behind me like he’d known I’d ask him to.
When we pushed out into the night air, I walked straight to my eight-year-old Camry. I opened the door and chucked my jacket full of stuff to the passenger seat and then turned to face Michael.
“Stealing is not the answer,” I said, but Michael wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Look at me.”
Michael lifted his eyes to mine. Unshed tears made them bright.
“Stealing is not the answer,” I said again, and this time he nodded, shoving a wrist into his eyes to wipe away the tears.
“I know,” he said. “It was so stupid. I just—my mom’s medicine is so expensive, and our insurance is crap, and Mom can’t work right now, and if I miss anymore school for work, I’ll have to repeat the eleventh grade, and I—” He broke off his run-on sentence and shook his head. “It was so stupid.” He forced his eyes back up to mine. “I’ll go tell Jeremy now. I’ll explain everything and return the money and you can have your job back. I’ll find some other job.”
I leaned against my car door and looked up at the sky. The light pollution kept me from seeing many stars, but there were always a stubborn few that refused to be blotted out. I could get my money back and get my job back and buy my camera with one word from this kid. My eyes traced along the Big Dipper, and suddenly that camera seemed a paltry prize. What was a camera in the face of so much need? I wanted a camera so I could pursue a passion; Michael needed medicine so his mom could live. I sighed and opened the car door, reaching across the driver’s side to grab something.
“Here,” I said, thrusting the envelope into his hands. “Take this and get your mom’s medicine and whatever else you need.”
Michael’s eyes widened and he stammered, trying to shove the envelope back at me, but I wouldn’t take it. “No,” I said, “it’s for you. Take it. But I want you to promise me something.”
He nodded vigorously, tears shining in his eyes again. “Anything.”
“Promise me you won’t go stealing money again, and that if you ever need something, you’ll ask your friends first.”
“I promise,” he said, then bit his lip. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“What do you mean?”
He paused, searching for the right words. “Someone who actually cares.”
I smiled at him. “How can I not,” I said, “when I’ve been so cared for all my life?”