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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

This Is All Your Fault

Aminah Mae Safi

Feiwel & Friends

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TUESDAY EVENING

AN HOUR AFTER CLOSING



PROLOGUE

There Is No Sinner Like a Young Saint



10:00 P.M., Tuesday

Eli

Eli had never been certain of much. His most defining belief so far was that he could get through life with a wink on hand, a smile at the ready, and a lighter in his pocket. But here was one thing—a suddenly new thing—he believed without question: Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium was going under.

Eli had seen the signs. The dwindling customer base. The fewer and fewer repeat booklovers coming to the sell counter. The way their online reviews had stagnated. The fact that the number of authors who came to do signings anymore was next to none.

What Eli didn’t understand was why.

Bookstores were supposed to be making a comeback. Actual paper books were, according to all those experts on the internet, crushing digital sales.

But for some reason none of those trends had touched Wild Nights. It was as though the store had been left behind to rot among the ashes of the book resurgence. It didn’t make sense. The store had the right vibe and the right location and somehow it was still floundering. Still sinking under the weight of its inventory.

There were really only three things left for Eli to do.

Root through the store’s records to find the proof of their imminent demise.See if there was a way to save Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium.Kick back and smoke a disposable pen from Jo’s bag of vapes, because there probably wasn’t a way to save the store and doom was almost always inevitable, as far as Eli was concerned.Eli should have done the first thing first and saved the smoking for last, but Eli had never been much for rules, even if they were of his own invention. He embraced his doom as he sat at the desk in the back office of the bookstore, typing the store’s daily totals with his left hand, because his right was occupied with one of the disposable vapes Jo had stashed away in her bottom desk drawer. Jo was the manager at Wild Nights, and she bought the variety packs of vapes from the local corner store because they were cheaper and she suspected her employees dug into her stash while she wasn’t looking.

She was correct.

Besides, Eli would have to be a saint to keep his hands off them as he closed the store alone and did math.

Eli was not a saint.

He was just a sucker for that heady buzz that came from smoking one of these. It was bad for him. But Eli was, in general, into things that were bad for him. He’d figured this out years ago, and, contrary to what all the adults around him said, he hadn’t grown out of it. Everything Eli touched turned to shit no matter what he did. He might as well go for the kind of stuff that would destroy him, rather than the other way around.

Eli took another puff. He didn’t like counting inventory on the old tape calculator. He had tried to do it the way Danny had shown him, but he was no natural at math, the way she was. It was slow going and would have been so much faster if he could have tallied the daily totals on the laptop, with a proper keyboard. And a spreadsheet.

Instead, he was using a calculator the size of a book. Not only was it enormous, the ancient machine actually printed out the numbers onto a roll of paper like the old-school register they kept up front. Every time Eli typed, the calculator made a scratching chut chut against the paper and spat out even more numbers. And then he was supposed to tally these numbers in a black, leather-bound notebook that held all the records of Wild Nights since the beginning of time. Danny usually closed and was the one typically entrusted with this job. But she’d been given the night off, and, despite his reputation, Eli didn’t want to mess up this job if he didn’t have to. He was going to tally the day’s totals and then get to the bottom of Wild Nights’ financial records.

But the more Eli totaled numbers, the more he thought about the process—it was super strange that the store’s owner, Archer Hunt Junior, hadn’t switched to any kind of digital records. Eli didn’t typically care about answers to impossible questions. But he couldn’t stop asking himself what was going on here. His mind couldn’t stop whirling with possibilities.

Where were the records, anyway? Why hadn’t Hunt Junior invested any energy into bringing new customers into the store? Why didn’t Hunt Junior even come down to the store anymore at all?

A pulsing blue glow caught the corner of Eli’s eye.

Jo had left her laptop in the office.

Eli hesitated for a fraction of a second. He really shouldn’t go rooting through other people’s laptops. Especially not people he respected. It was just, laptops could double-check Eli’s math. Laptops could be used to make a digital archive of what was currently only ink and paper. Without anyone else on-site, all of Eli’s suspicions were really only guesses. A feeling that had grown unavoidable to Eli. A truth he knew but couldn’t quite prove.

Eli had been blindsided enough in his life to know when it was happening, and he knew it was happening now. He just had to figure out how. And he had to figure out how without getting caught.

Besides, if Jo hadn’t wanted Eli to use the old black brick of a laptop, she ought to have made her password more secure than thebatman in all lowercase. She was always going off that “the Batman” was the least interesting part of any of the comics. It wasn’t hard to guess that she used the phrase as a catchall key to all her digital castles. She used it for the Wi-Fi password, too. And Eli had seen Hackers enough on TV to know that people reused their passwords. It didn’t matter how many times people were warned that they shouldn’t. They just did. Jo hadn’t even bothered to add a number combination at the back end to throw off the average, prank-level hack.

Though, to be honest, Eli probably could have guessed the number combination at the back end of Jo’s passwords, too. She was predictable, and Eli knew her well enough after working under her at the bookstore for the last couple of years. He knew her birthday and the date her mom had died. If you paid attention, you could really see people when they weren’t taking notice of themselves.

The login screen accepted Eli’s password and, in an instant, he was in.

Except Jo’s desktop was pristine.

Nothing but her hard drive and a shortcut to her email.

Eli knew that, next to going through someone’s search history or maybe looking through their messages, clicking on another person’s email was one of the most invasive things that he could do. But Eli wanted answers, and adults, even adults like Jo, were never going to give straight answers. Adults were always saying they were protecting you, but Eli knew that was just a fancy way of saying lying.

So Eli clicked the lone desktop shortcut and into Jo’s email he went.

Wild Nights property sale: PENDING

That was the only message in her inbox. Eli should have stopped there. Should have closed down the mail client and shut down the laptop. It was very obvious, really, what Eli should have done next. Don’t open your boss’s email. Especially the boss who hired you when you still had a juvenile record. It was one of those things that went without saying, really.

Eli clicked open the email.

Of course, once he’d opened the message, Eli wished he’d never seen it. Wished he’d actually listened to Jo and not touched her laptop in the first place. Wished he’d let the adults protect him from the truth instead of going out searching for it like a real asshole. As he read, the pit in Eli’s stomach grew until it formed the kind of chasm that he didn’t know how to climb his way out of.

NOTICE

This is a notice that the sale of the property, plant, and equipment—Wild Nights Bookstore building and lot—is under consideration with the West Garden Property Group and will likely be finalized in the next fourteen days. Please consider yourself advised.

Regards,

Archer Hunt Jr.Owner, Hunt Properties, LLCTempus Fugit …

Leave it to Archer Hunt to not even put a greeting at the top of a message that told his oldest and most senior employee that she was going to be without a job and out on her ass in two weeks. Attached to the email was a series of documents—unsigned—but all looking like pretty official contracts. The valuation of the property that the bookstore sat on was blacked over. Like Jo deserved to be given two weeks’ notice to find a new job but not to understand the basic underlying numbers and monetary value of what she was being sold out for.

It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.

Eli was used to this by now. He was under no illusions that the world was a fair place. He had accepted that as true and real for as long as he could remember. The world was an unholy and random dumpster fire, so stick it to the man as much as you can.

The problem was, Eli realized, that he kind of was the man. Or, at least, he very easily could become the man in, like, twenty years. He had all the traits that could boost him into that vaunted position. Fair hair and the kind of chubby-cheeked smile that—combined with the fact that he was a straight white dude—meant people just believed him, without really trying. Meant that people honestly wanted to help him, in whatever his endeavors were. Remove roadblocks rather than set them up in his way. Hell, courtesy of his eighteenth birthday, his petty criminal record had been wiped clean. Nobody in Chicago had even considered trying a fourteen-year-old white boy with curly blond hair as an adult for a string of grocery and convenience store beer thefts. He was just a boy to them, being a boy. And while maybe he deserved a little reprimand, he didn’t really deserve a permanent record.

That was how Eli knew that life wasn’t fair. It had never been fair to him. It had been unreasonably kind to him. He had to make up for that somehow.

Eli put down the vape pen. Playtime was over. Really, he had two choices now.

1. Help Jo make a case for what Wild Nights Bookstore was worth.

2. Give up and go back to being as complacent as he’d ever been.

That was it. Help out the person who had given him a real chance—back when Eli’s record was still a thing that kept him from being hired—or give up now. He could easily go back to being the kid who thought stealing six-packs was the best way to show the world that he saw it for what it was.

Or he could save the day. Like the real Batman.

Eli started searching for commercial property values in Wicker Park. He whistled when he saw how many zeros gentrification added to a purchasing price. Eli wasn’t sure how to compete with that. But maybe if he could make a case for a strong, sustainable business, Archer Hunt wouldn’t want to sell.

Eli started searching through the office, looking for old invoices. He found them—daily takes stretching back to the nineties—in a series of binders on the bookshelf behind the desk. All the numbers were down, year over year. For decades. Not that these were exact data. But he could see the downward trend as he looked. The worst of it was recent, too. Almost a year ago to the date, the numbers started to really and truly spiral downward. The more Eli flipped through, the more he realized that there wasn’t a real case for Wild Nights staying open. If Eli just took the last twelve months of data, he’d probably make an excellent case for closing the store down permanently.

Eli had been right. Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium was going under.

He went back to the laptop. Maybe Jo had found more info than he had. She must have put together her own case of what the business was worth, or at least what the finances looked like. Maybe she had found something that Eli had missed.

Eli opened up Jo’s calendar on the web browser. He looked over the week. Jo had, in all her anal-retentive glory, made a note on her calendar for this Friday—

last day of full staff.

It was such a simple note. No caps lock. No exclamation points. Just a direct statement of fact marked into her calendar.

Here was the thing—Jo had taken Eli in and given him a chance when nobody else would. She’d hired a kid with a record, and instead of yelling at Eli and lecturing him, she had handed him responsibility and told him to step up to the plate. She’d made this space—Wild Nights—a place for the art kids like AJ and the book nerds like Rinn and the angry girls like Imogen. Even Daniella Korres didn’t mind working at Wild Nights, and Danny was disdainful of nearly everything. She rolled her eyes whenever Eli called her Danny. True, when he’d started calling her that, it was kind of a joke. But by now, he couldn’t help it. She had white-blond hair and a heart made out of stone. If anyone could have been a real-life Mother of Dragons, it was Daniella Korres. But she was also more than a fictional queen, so Eli elongated her name when he said it, made sure it sounded like he’d added an extra n and made the nickname her own.

And Jo, she had made the bookstore a haven. She had made it theirs, even though none of them were at all alike, except for the fact that some piece of them didn’t fit in anywhere else. Wild Nights couldn’t just close. Staff couldn’t be let go on Friday, without warning. Jo couldn’t suddenly not have a job. It wasn’t right.

Eli opened a new tab on the browser and started searching. The patron saints of the internet had to tell him something useful.

Because what to do was tough to say.

The first problem was—Eli didn’t have any money.

And he didn’t come from money. And even if he had, given how much trouble he’d gotten into in the past, he doubted his mom would have forked over any funds, no matter how legitimate Eli’s reasons. After her last desperate bid to take Eli back to church had failed to produce any results, Eli’s mom had largely washed her hands of him. That was the problem with being found out as a good liar—people couldn’t trust that Eli was telling the truth rather than telling a good lie in a true-sounding way.

Eli started typing the names of large banking institutions into the browser bar of a series of new tabs. It was a desperate bid for information and resources. Usually the accounts logged you out.

Usually.

But Jo—oh God, Jo—had left herself signed into her password manager. Eli could practically envision her clicking Trust This Device and not giving it a second thought. He found an account where two-step verification hadn’t been turned on and he was, miraculously, in. It was a petty-cash account, but Eli had money to play with now. He had resources.

He cracked his knuckles. He opened a new tab.

What could he do with nine thousand dollars?

As he searched, he found a staggering number of pyramid schemes. Weight-loss supplements. Protein powders. Laxative teas. Tupperware. Makeup. The inventory was irrelevant, really. But the key was to buy volume and then trick someone else into buying more volume.

Eli wanted to get rich quick with a low-capital investment here. Not get stuck with massive overhead costs. The more he searched, the more he saw that all those multilevel marketing schemes cost people money. Besides, if he was going to buy inventory, it had to look like something the bookstore could legitimately sell. Nobody came to Wild Nights looking for detox-laxative tea. At least not intentionally.

He needed a way to flip the cash in this account into more cash. If he could do that successfully, maybe he could help Jo get enough to buy a stake in the bookstore.

There had to be another way to flip the money.

Maybe gambling?

There was online poker, but it was difficult to wire the cash now that gambling online was illegal. There was no good way to funnel the bookstore’s funds into the online accounts.

Not good enough.

Maybe he could buy into some kind of cryptocurrency. But it would take days to figure out how to transfer the cash, then another few weeks at least of growth, if it even went up at all.

Eli didn’t have that kind of time.

Friday. He had until Friday.

It was nearly 1:00 A.M. when Eli found the inventory of Jordans.

They were older and more rare, the kind that could really go for something. The photos looked good. Eli noticed a couple of potentially super-unique items—a retro Air Jordan IV and a pair of kicks that looked like they could have been those Nike Mags—the Back to the Future II ones.

The price was low enough to account for the fact that the seller wanted to off-load them, but not so low as to ring alarm bells. And the total inventory was priced around the nine-thousand-dollar mark. The sale of the individual items all together was worth at least eighteen to twenty-one thousand, though. That was what Eli had gotten from googling all the shoes he could ID and seeing what they were going for.

Eli was interested but still cautious. He messaged the seller. Whats up with the Jordans

nothing, man, the seller wrote back pretty quickly. I just need to move into a smaller storefront and I’ve got to let this older merchandise go.

That made sense. Eli cracked his knuckles again. There were two paths forward.

1. Do something for someone else for once in his life.

2. Sit back and watch the bookstore close and enjoy the rest of his vape.

This was it. He either did something, here and now. Or he gave up. Went back to tallying the day’s totals. Went back to accepting the status quo. Went back to being the kind of person who rebelled against the system when it was most convenient to himself but sat by and watched when shit was really hitting the fan. Let Jo lose her job and let the bookstore close without doing a damned thing about it.

Eli made a decision.

alright lets do it, and Eli put the payment through on the vendor website—because he knew better than to give away a billing address and a bank account to a stranger on the internet—and watched as the available funds drained out of the account.

He’d done it. Or at least, half of it.

Eli took the photos that were already on the seller page and asked for copies, double-checking that those were images of the actual product. The seller assured Eli that they were and sent along the photos as a measure of good faith. The overnight tracking number arrived quickly in Jo’s inbox after that. The merchandise would arrive tomorrow. The timing was perfect.

Eli had his first pair of Jordans listed by 2:00 A.M.

Ping. He had a hit. Already. Eli let out a sign of relief. He was really doing it. He was really saving the bookstore.

These photos of the actual merchandise? That was from the buyer.

Eli assured the buyer that they were.

no good

But that didn’t make any sense to Eli. Having photos of the actual merchandise was always helpful. No good?

The response was almost immediate. Nah, man. these are fake af.

Fake??? Eli had trouble breathing. He’d been managing just fine before. But he struggled to inhale now. There was no way—no way—these were fake. They were real. They had to be real.

Didn’t you know?

No, typed Eli. Because this wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.

But the person on the other end was relentless. The lightning bolt in the back isn’t right. The tongue doesn’t say Be Like Mike. dont mess with me man. you gotta know they’re fake.

Eli felt a pang in his chest. But now was not the time to panic. Sure, the money was out of the account. But he could message the original seller and see what was up. He could definitely get a refund. Definitely. He had not made the problem worse. He would check in with the original seller and he would fix this. And then get back to saving the bookstore.

yo someone said these are fake. i’d like a refund if they are

The original seller messaged back immediately. You buy the merchandise it’s yours. I already shipped it out, man.

Eli typed so that he hit every key with precision. He hit a hard return. I. want. my. money. back.

You snooze you lose, kid. And then the original seller logged off.

Eli went back, trying to use the buyer protection plan on the vendor website. But it was too late. The money was gone. The banks could possibly work it out, but the account wasn’t his. If he reported this to real authorities, Eli would be the one on the hook for stealing the bookstore’s money to begin with. Especially since Eli had wanted to use the money to help Jo buy a stake in the store from its actual owner, Archer Hunt Junior.

It looked like fraud. Eli didn’t have to be good at math to know that.

Eli logged out of the bank account. He logged out of the vendor website. He scrubbed any email evidence of the purchases out of Jo’s inbox. Eli scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, so that there was nothing left. No trace of what he’d done.

Of course, there was nine thousand dollars missing. So that was a trace.

But Eli kept scrubbing anyway, as best he could for as long as he was able. He couldn’t look at any of it anymore. Couldn’t clear his mind of what he’d done. He’d lost more than nine grand. Over a bunch of fake Air Jordans. The store would be lucky if it could operate past tomorrow. The petty cash was gone.

Gone.

Eli closed Jo’s laptop. Put it back exactly in the spot where he’d found it.

And then he finished closing, as though nothing had happened. He tallied the totals on the calculator. He input them into the account ledger, just like Danny had shown him. Then he stood, locked up Wild Nights Bookstore, and went out into the muggy, early Chicago morning. He started walking, not sure of where he was headed. He heard the vape fall out of his pocket, but he didn’t stop to pick it up. He had to keep moving, keep going.

Then he got out his phone and he messaged Danny. Wild Nights is closing down. Top secret. Cover for me until I get to work tomorrow.

She’d understand. If he could explain in person, at least Danny would get it. And even if she didn’t, she was probably out tonight and wouldn’t see the message until the morning anyway. Eli had at least six more hours to magically come up with nine thousand dollars.

Sure, he’d read fantasy books with less fantastical premises. But Eli wasn’t giving up yet.

Eventually, the hammer would come down on Eli. But right now, he’d go for a walk and he’d figure this out. He had six hours and he could do this—he could.

Because Eli knew that eventually wasn’t some undefined date in the future.

Eventually was very likely tomorrow morning.


Copyright © 2020 by Aminah Mae Safi