Scam Artist

by Amanda Rohrssen

The frigid winter wind railed threateningly against the cityscape, pummeling its citizens and rattling windows until it wormed its way into every nook and cranny. There was not a single body making its way through the streets that was not quivering with cold. None was shaking as badly, however, as that of a small boy no older than ten.

His mismatched rags hung from his gangly limbs in feeble shreds, and the blanket he had draped around his shoulders to ward off the air was littered with holes. A cup jangled in his tiny fist without any effort on his part, but the sound fell silent on the muffed ears of the passersby. Every so often his weak voice trembled along with his cup of change, calling out for help to anyone who happened to glance his way.

It was when the rough, ragged coughing began that more and more people began to take notice of the pitiful child and plunk money into his grubby mug. Many smiled sympathetically following his meager, "Thank you...", some merely averted their eyes, but all continued past him without a second thought.

He'd been at it for four hours now, and his feathered rear end was beginning to feel as numb as his fingers. Sniffling, he stumbled to his feet and began heading in the direction of the schoolyard, continuing to plead faintly for coins. The wind blasted his cheeks and he had to squint to make sure he wasn't going to run into anything. Buick Centuries and Chrysler New Yorkers roared past him, kicking up slush from the road and pelting his bare ankles. He glared sullenly after the vehicles, but brightened when a young woman placed a dollar bill into his outstretched cup.

"Gee, thanks!" he said, smiling as best he could through chattering teeth. One look into his money-filled cup, and the boy took off running, throwing the blanket from his body and letting the relentless gale bite through his shredded clothes. The schoolyard wasn't too far.

Just as the bell thundered joyously over the moaning wind, signalling the end of another school day, Jacob skittered to a stop and looked earnestly up the front stairs. Children screaming wildly stampeded past him and nearly knocked his prize out of his hands, but he managed to hold on long enough to spot his younger brother come trudging out of the doors.

"Nick!" he shouted, waving his free arm like a frantic metronome. "Nick, over here!"

The duckling eyed his brother warily, but finally pushed his way through the mass of students. Nick's black eye told Jacob that the bullies were at it again. He felt a sting of anger, but rather than goad information out of the younger mallard, he decided to deal with the situation later.

"Guess what I did toda-"

"Oh Jacob, not again." Nick sighed and put a hand to his forehead, looking too much like an adult for Jacob's taste.


"You can't keep tricking people like that. It isn't right."

"Oh, come on," Jacob grinned, elbowing Nick teasingly. "Lighten up! It's not like they're going to miss a few coins."

"But you're pretending to be homeless when you're not. You're pretending to be sick when you're not. It's a lie, and it's not very nice."

"Haven't you heard the expression, 'Nice ducks finish last'? Besides, we might as well BE homeless considering the poor excuses for parents we've got."

Nick's face grew even more somber. "Don't say that. Mom loves us."

Jacob made a face. "Whatever. At least Dad's overseas again. Anyway -- look!" He thrust out the cup filled with coins and bills, and could have sworn for a moment he saw Nick's eyes widen greedily. "I beat my last record! A whole fifteen dollars this time!"

"Aren't you afraid you'll get caught?" Nick asked worriedly. "What if someone finds out you're faking?"

"Eh, pfft." Jacob waved a hand carelessly. "They won't find out. Now gimme your coat. It's cold!"


When the boys arrived at their small tenament facing an alley, Jacob felt his heart sink. Just outside of the door, along the street, was a sleek new Cadillac Series 61, and he knew that once again his mother had company. He stuffed the money mug into the side of the coat and held it tightly against his chest as they crept forward.

It seemed like every day there was a different car parked outside of their home. Jacob didn't understand why his mother needed so much attention. Wasn't she happy with just Nick and him? He knew she certainly wasn't very happy when their father was home. Nobody was. And each time he saw a new car, he was sure today would be the day his father would return and find another man in his wife's bed.

"Mom's got a new friend today," Nick observed brightly, the ramifications of this fact not settling in to his six-year-old mind. "I wonder if he's as nice as the last one."

"Who cares?" Jacob snapped, glaring at the fancy suit jacket hanging on their coat rack. "He'll be gone by tomorrow. They always are."

"The last one gave us candy!" Nick continued. "I hope he comes over again."

Jacob rolled his eyes but said nothing as he closed the door behind them. Gingerly he peeled off his brother's coat, trying to keep hold of the money as he did so, but even with all of his caution the cup tipped out of his fingers and hit the ground, splaying coins everywhere.

There were muffled voices, then a single raised, shrill one. They knew immediately that their mother was in one of her moods.

"Jacob! Boys, is that you? What is all that racket?!"

The back door of the tiny apartment flew open, and she stormed out, her auburn hair spraying from her head like snakes. She was wearing panties and a silk robe, half-open over her nearly-naked form. A wave of cigarette smoke trailed after her. With her gray eyes flaring she reached out and grabbed Jacob's bill between her thumb and fingers, making his lips stick out.

"You know the rules, but you still come barging in here making noise. When Mommy's busy with her friends, Mommy needs all little brats to neither be seen nor heard! Make one peep, and you'll have an eye to match your brother's!"

"But Mommy, it wasn't his fault," Nick explained fervently. "He didn't mean to be loud, it was the money!"

"Ssh!" Jacob hissed, glaring at his younger brother.

Their mother's head perked up. "Money? What money?"

Nick pointed, and Jacob's despair and indignance increased as he watched her gaze fall from Nick's face to the floor. Her eyes widened, and she loosed Jacob in favor of scooping up the fallen change.

"That's mine!" Jacob cried, bending down to snatch what he could out of her fingers.

"I don't care!" his mother snapped, shoving him backward. "I don't know where this came from or how you got it, but it's mine now, you got that?"

His pursed bill wavered as raged coursed through him, but it didn't last long. Though her eyes were glazed over, once she'd locked them with his, he felt the fight drain out of him to be replaced with empty bitterness. This was how things always ended with his mother. Always.

"Got it?!" she demanded, the fire returning to her stare.

"Got it..." Jacob mumbled.


Moments after she'd left with the majority of the cash, Nick picked up a couple of remaining pennies and held them out to Jacob. Jacob gazed at the pennies for a long moment, then looked at his brother's round, innocent face, as if coming to a decision about something more than the money.

"Keep it," he said curtly.

As he pushed past Nick, ignoring the chagrined expression on his face, he felt a wracking cough coming on. This time, however, it wasn't fake.