“All right, everybody, we’re going to play a game. Take a seat.”
Erica stood in the center of the large living room while the other boys and girls scrambled to get the good seats on the stuffed couch and the matching arm chairs. Matthew made it to one side of the couch, beside his friend Carter. Several other children jumped on the couch, giggling and squeezing together.
Mason wasn’t so fortunate. He had to settle for a metal folding chair. Matthew and Mason didn’t usually get invited to the same birthday parties because they were two years apart in age, but Erica was right between them. She wanted a big party, and had invited everybody from school, or so it seemed.
“Quiet,” Erica called. She had to repeat her command several times. Finally, the shouting subsided to a dull roar, and she was able to make herself heard. “Okay, these are the rules. I want everybody to tell about the most interesting thing they’ve ever found. Not just, ‘Duh, I found a nickel.’ I want stories—good stories. We’ll vote, and the best three stories get prizes.”
In spite of Erica’s admonition, the stories were rather routine. One girl had found five dollars at the mall. Others had found items ranging from clothing to a CD to a Cross pen to a teddy bear in the original container. A boy upped the ante by telling how he had found a bunch of abalone shells on a deserted beach while on vacation in California. He had stuffed as many of them as he could into his day pack, and brought them home with him.
“Who hasn’t told a story yet?” Erica asked. She scanned the room. “Aha. Matthew and Mason, the brothers grim. What’s the matter with you guys? I know you’re both actors. Entertain us.”
Matthew and Mason looked at each other. Mason gave a barely noticeable shake of his head.
“We can’t top the stories that have already been told,” Matthew said.
Somebody began singing, “Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you, party pooper…”
Matthew jumped up from the sofa and motioned to Mason. “Huddle.”
Mason stood and followed him into the next room.
Matthew spoke softly. “Look, if they want a story, let’s tell it to them. What can happen?”
“Number one, they won’t believe us. Number two, it’ll sound like we’re bragging. Number three, we could have the mob after us.”
“Maybe it’s better if they don’t believe us. Should we swear them to secrecy?”
“That’s a good way to get it broadcast all over Fairfax County. You’re right. We’ll tell it in such a way that they think we made it up.”
They returned to the living room and stood side by side, facing the expectant multitude. Something in their demeanor made the children quiet down without being asked.
Matthew spoke first. “One day last summer, Mason and I got up early, about sunrise.”
One of the boys laughed, derisively. The two weren’t known to be early risers.
Ignoring the interruption, Matthew continued. “We had an errand to run for our dad’s birthday. We walked to Ox Road the long way, because we were early, and headed toward the shopping center. We hadn’t gone far when we saw a box sitting in the middle of the road.”
Mason interrupted. “It was one of those brown cardboard packing boxes used for shipping cans of soup to supermarkets, right in the lane where it could get hit by a car.”
“Fortunately,” Matthew continued, “it was early Sunday morning, and traffic was light. But it was definitely a hazard. No cars were coming, so I ran out to get it off the street.”
“It was too heavy for Matthew to lift. I ran out to help him.”
“I had to yell at you to come.”
“Anyway, we picked it up together and carried it to the sidewalk.”
“What was in it?” a girl asked.
“Patience,” Mason said. “We’re coming to that. The box was so heavy we were curious about what was inside.”
“So tell us, already.”
Matthew said, “We opened the top. Guess what we saw?”
“Cans of soup.”
“A bunch of Lego sets.”
“Better,” Mason said.
“What could be better than Legos?”
“Money,” Matthew said. “The box was full of money.”
“Yes.” Mason grinned. “The reason the box was so heavy is because it contained rolls of coins, mostly quarters.”
“You’re making this up.”
“Scout’s honor,” Matthew said. “Wait, there’s more. There were also bills—in billfolds. Five, ten, and twenty-dollar bills. Lots of them.”
The kids gasped. Someone said, “Now we know you’re making this up.”
“How much money was there?”
“We couldn’t leave the money there,” Mason said, ignoring the question. “Somebody would steal it.”
“So you stole it instead.”
Matthew interrupted the laughter. “We were beside the high, wooden fence that separates Ox Road from our community. We carried the box behind the fence, put it under a bush, and covered it with branches and leaves. Nobody ever goes behind the fence, so we figured it would be safe there.”
Mason took up the story. “We went on our errand and then returned and checked on the box. It was all right for the moment, but we couldn’t leave it there because rain was forecast for that night. We went home and tried to figure out how to carry the box home.”
“Did you tell your mom and dad about it?”
“We were going to,” Matthew said, “but they were off shopping, and we didn’t want to wait until they returned. We needed a wagon or a cart to carry the box in, but we didn’t have one. We thought about using a bicycle, balancing the box on the seat and pushing it.”
“Then I reminded Matthew that although we had to walk half a mile or so on the streets to get to the fence, the streets curve all over the place and the fence is actually only a couple of hundred feet from our house.
“Through our neighbors’ yard. We had never gone that way because it would be trespassing. The neighbors weren’t home, however, so we carried the box through their yard and put it in the garage, in the corner with some tools.”
“So you did steal the money.”
“Not so fast,” Mason said. “I told Matthew we had to call the police.”
“I knew we had to tell the police,” Matthew said, indignantly. “I called them and asked whether anybody had reported losing money. The policeman asked how much money. I told him I didn’t know—some coins and some bills. He said he’d let me know.”
“So you didn’t give the money to the police.”
“They didn’t want the money. If nobody claimed it, we’d get to keep it.”
A ripple of excitement went through the party-goers.
“Did anybody claim it?”
“Did you tell your mom and dad?”
The questions were coming thick and fast. Matthew and Mason were enjoying the suspense.
“We meant to tell them,” Mason said, “but, somehow, we forgot. The next day was Monday. Dad took a day off from work and we drove to Luray Caverns.”
“When we got home we checked the telephone messages, but there was no message from the police.”
“The next day was Tuesday. We decided we should do something with the money, maybe bring it into the house and count it. To do that we had to tell Mom about it.”
“What did she say?”
Matthew smiled. “She didn’t believe us. We told her we had found a box full of money, and she flat didn’t believe us. She made a joke about it.”
“Did you show her the box?”
“Naw. She hurt our feelings. She thought we were making it up, so we left it in the garage.”
Carter said, “I don’t know whether to believe you guys or not, since I’ve never heard this story before, but at least tell us how it came out. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
“We’re coming to the best part,” Matthew said. “That afternoon we went to the library as part of our summer reading program. I was looking at some books in the adult section when I heard two men talking in low voices. I peeked around the bookshelf and saw them sitting at a table in the corner. They didn’t look like library patrons. They looked tough, like gangsters.”
“Gangsters in a library?”
“It could happen,” Mason said. “We think they meet there because it’s not a suspicious place. Matthew motioned for me to join him on the other side of the shelves from them. They couldn’t see us. We were very quiet. We could hear what they were saying.”
“They were talking about money. One man said what an idiot a man named Chip was. Chip had picked up a box of money from some sort of collection point. He placed it in the back of a pickup truck, and forgot to put the tailgate up. When he got to a place the man called HQ, the box was gone.”
“The man said they went back and searched all along one twenty-three, but didn’t find the box. One twenty-three is Ox Road. He wondered whether Chip had kept the money for himself. They talked about what they were going to do to Chip. It wasn’t pretty.” Mason cringed.
A girl said, “Do you really think we’re going to believe that you overheard two men talking about your box of money in a library? We’re not that dumb.”
Erica stood up and said, “Listen, everybody, at least they’re telling a good story. Don’t interrupt; let them finish.”
That shut everybody up, at least temporarily.
Matthew looked around the room to make sure that all the boys and girls were paying attention. “Hearing that conversation scared us, because we realized we had money belonging to gangsters. Although they had probably gotten it illegally. We were too scared to tell anybody by that time, including Mom and Dad.”
Matthew’s words had an effect. The kids looked somber.
Mason wanted to maintain the mood. “We talked together about what we should do with the money. We didn’t want them coming after us. We could put the box back where we found it, but somebody else would probably pick it up.”
“We could confess to Dad, split up the money and open accounts with him at Smith Barney, but what if the mob had connections there and figured out where we got the money.”
“We could hide it for a few years until the gangsters forgot about it, but even that was a risky thing to do, because somebody might find it and trace it back to us. If we hid it too well, we might not be able to find it ourselves. It would become like pirates’ buried treasure, and be found a couple of hundred years later.”
“Even if we spent it a little at a time, somebody might start asking questions. And we didn’t feel good about profiting from dirty money.”
“We knew the gangsters wouldn’t go to the police. We certainly didn’t want to put an ad in the paper, saying, ‘Hey, gangsters, we’ve got your money.’”
That brought some laughs of relief.
“Okay, we know all the things you didn’t do. So what did you do?”
Mason said, “We decided to give it away.”
There were some gasps from the audience.
“Not because we don’t like money,” Matthew said. “It was for our own protection.”
“Even giving it away caused problems, because we didn’t want anybody to question us about where we got it, and we didn’t want any publicity.”
“Several times we’ve helped an organization that does good things. It’s called a nonprofit because nobody makes any money from it. Almost all the money they receive goes for helping people.”
The wisecracks from the boys and girls had stopped. They were hushed and listening. Mason took the opportunity to increase the suspense.
“But how could we get the money to them and keep our identities a secret? We found out from our mom that they have an office, in a building near the mall. We decided to take the money there.”
Matthew continued. “We taped the box shut, and put it in the car when Mom went shopping. We told her we had several Lego sets we wanted to return to a store in the mall, and we’d donate the refund to the nonprofit organization. We actually had a couple of sets in a different box, so we were telling the truth.”
“When we got to the mall, we told Mom we were going to the Lego store, and said we’d meet her later. We did go to the store. Then we went back to the car. Matthew had a spare key. We lifted the box out of the back of the car and carried it to the office building. We stopped to rest a few times. When we got to the building, we took the elevator up to the second floor.”
“We didn’t want to walk into the nonprofit’s office with the box, so we set it down on the floor in the hallway. I told Mason to guard it while I checked out the office. I tried to open the door to the office, but it was locked. A sign on the door said it would open at noon. It was about ten minutes to noon.”
“We waited with the box around the corner from the elevator. We taped an envelope to the box with the name of the organization on it. Inside, we had placed a sheet of paper that said “Anonymous donation.’”
“You don’t even know how to spell ‘anonymous,’” one of the girls said, laughing.
“Do too,” Mason said.
“All right, all right,” Matthew interrupted. “We heard the elevator door open about noon. We peeked around the corner and saw a woman enter the office. We carried the box to the door of the office.”
“Now comes the tricky part,” Mason said, proudly. “I called the elevator and kept the door open by pressing the “Open” button. The timing had to be perfect. Matthew knocked on the door of the office and raced to the elevator. I pushed the “Close” button just as he entered.”
“As the door of the elevator closed, I heard the door of the nonprofit office open.” Matthew paused. “That’s the end of the story.”
There was silence for a few seconds, and then the partygoers gave the two a hearty round of applause.
When the applause died down, one of the boys said, “You’ve told a good story. Perhaps too good a story. How do we know it’s really true ? You didn’t even tell us the name of the organization you gave the money to.”
Several people spoke at once, mostly condemning the speaker.
Erica got up and motioned for silence. When the room quieted down, she spoke.
“First of all, I’m going to give Matthew and Mason the prize for telling the best story. As to whether it’s true , my mother is on the board of a nonprofit organization. A little before school started, I remember her telling about an anonymous donation they received in the form of bills and coins.”
“How much was it?”
“She didn’t say, exactly. She just said it was enough to help a lot of people.”
Judging from the girls and boys flocking around them, Matthew and Mason were the hit of the party.