The setup and the timing are both perfect. After tonight, maybe I’ll finally be free.
There’s a dream that’s chased me most of my life. It’s not the kind people talk about, not something to be proud of, but it persists, like a mild rash that never quite heals—something you learn to live with but are always aware of on some level. If only it was as simple as a medical problem. But it’s not and I’ve thought and prayed on it, wished and hoped that it would just leave me alone, and nothing makes it go away. I think that bringing the dream to life is the only thing that will give me any release.
It started when I was a kid. My family was big and poor. Both of my parents are devout Catholics and raised us to be the same. We never missed a Sunday Mass or any kind of holiday service, and Confirmation was a bigger deal than any of our birthdays. At times, it seemed to me that religion was all we ever really had. That wasn’t quite true, though. Not with so many of us.
I’m the second youngest of six, with two older brothers, two older sisters, and a younger sister.
My oldest brother is the pride of the family: handsome, outgoing, and athletic. My other brother is pretty much the same. “An heir and a spare” they called it in earlier times. My older sisters are a year apart, but could be twins: they’re both blonde, pretty, and bubbly, always popular. And from the moment she was born, my younger sister was the little princess, the baby my parents doted on.
People say that the middle child is the well-adjusted one, but what happens when there’s an even number? Somehow, among so many kids, I was the extra, and there was no niche in the family left for me.
Without ever actually thinking about it, I tried to make my own. I was always polite and helpful, always neatly dressed, my hair combed, and my face scrubbed clean. Teachers and neighbors referred to me as “such a nice boy.” I was the good son and I worked hard at it.
But it didn’t matter.
I never caused any trouble, I never asked for anything, my parents never needed to worry about me, so it was almost like I stopped existing. My brothers alternately achieved and acted out—normal kid stuff, nothing too serious—and my older sisters were social butterflies who had the world in their hands before they even realized it. My young sister was lavished with attention because she was the youngest and naturally adorable. But my parents never had to spare a thought for me, so they didn’t.
The summer I turned fourteen, a local college hosted an archaeology camp. The pamphlet said they not only taught the science but actually took kids out to excavations. I spent middle school interested in paleontology, despite my parents’ firm belief in Creationism. I thought this could be my Big Thing of the last summer before high-school and I was excited enough to ask my parents for something special.
Both of my brothers spent summers at camps—first Cub Scouts, and later sports camps when they were older—but my parents never once asked me if I was interested. When I told them what I wanted, my father exploded. Devout Catholic and firm Creationist, after all. We argued. Another first for me.
Finally, my father made a concession: if I paid for at least half the cost, he would make up the rest and I could attend the camp.
It sounds reasonable, but even at fourteen, I realized the request was cruel. I had no money of my own except the tiny weekly allowance my father gave me. Meeting his condition was impossible, but damned if I wasn’t going to try, anyway. That was the germ of the dream: to show my father up and prove he couldn’t beat me. It was the first time I was ever really aware of the pain my place in the family caused me and the first time I ever saw my parents as opponents I had to win out over.
So I needed a lot of money and I needed it fast. How was a fourteen-year-old supposed to get it, though?
I thought about borrowing it. I was the “nice boy” and someone around the neighborhood would probably help me. My parents prided themselves on never taking any sort of charity, though; accepting money from anyone would only end up another kind of battle.
I considered a job, but there aren’t many places a kid that young can work, and even if I found employment, I wouldn’t be able to earn the money quickly enough.
So what other way was there to get money?
It was like a stranger’s voice inside my head. I never stole anything in my life and I was shocked at the idea. It wouldn’t let go of me, though, and time was running out. I spent days thinking about it, collecting bottles and cans off the street, piling up nickels and getting angrier and more bitter. When my father spotted me digging through a dumpster one afternoon, he laughed. That finally made my decision.
The same night, I snuck out of a window and down the fire escape. I made my way to a strange part of the city, picked at random, my only criteria that it was within an hour’s walk of my home. In my own neighborhood, I was the nice boy, always well-groomed and polite. Here, in new territory, my hair was messy and plastered across my forehead; my shirt was untucked and only half-buttoned; my pants hung low off my hips; my shoulders were hunched, and I walked with a shuffle. I even practiced talking out of the side of my mouth to disguise my voice, while hoping I wouldn’t have to speak.
From the moment I set foot outside that night, my stomach churned and my mind kept going blank, as if trying to distance itself from what my body was doing. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I didn’t think I’d need one. I was worse than an amateur, but anger drove me on, anyway. What I wanted was very simple. I thought that the anger and a little luck were all I needed.
It wasn’t long before I spotted an unescorted woman. Her shoes clicked swiftly against concrete as she moved between splashes of grimy-yellow light, nearly disappearing in the gloom between streetlights. When she passed me, she pretended I wasn’t there.
I glanced all around, saw no one else, and knew I’d never get a better chance. Turning on my heel, I ran as fast as I could, snatching at the woman’s purse-strap, yanking so hard that it tore, and accidentally knocking her to the ground. I can still feel the sheer terror that grabbed my heart and squeezed when she screamed—first in surprise and fear, then in rage. I’d never even heard some of the words she hurled after me. I bolted like a rabbit, her fury chasing me. I was far more frightened than my victim.
I ran for a dozen blocks before a stitch in my side forced me to stop. Heaving for breath, I ducked into the nearest alley, buttoned and tucked in my shirt, hiked up my trousers, and fixed my hair as best I could without a mirror. Once again, I was the nice boy, the good son.
I undid the clasps on the purse, both eager and scared to see what I stole. The purse was filled with the usual detritus: tissues, makeup, some loose coins, keys, a half-pack of cigarettes—and a wallet. I opened it, avoiding looking at the ID, not wanting to know the woman’s name or see her staring up at me through the glassine window. All I cared about was the money and it was all I would let myself see.
There were two limp one-dollar bills inside. I nearly cried.
My heart was still racing as I replaced the bills, put the wallet back into the purse, and shoved the whole thing into the first postbox I found. I headed home, trembling with fear and the aftereffects of adrenaline. I snuck back up the fire escape, careful not to wake my brothers, and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t—not that night or the next.
For days, I expected policemen at our door, asking for my parents, telling them and my siblings that someone recognized me running from the scene of the crime, and that they came to arrest me. I imagined my mother’s tears and my father’s anger. I didn’t know how my brothers would react. Maybe my sisters would miss me.
Days became weeks, weeks became months, and still that awful moment never happened. There were no police and apparently no repercussions. Somehow, I got away clean, except for my conscience.
After that night, I forgot all about archaeology camp and naturally my parents never brought it up. I went back to being the meek, quiet, good son, always helpful, always doing as I was told. Guilt made me try even harder, as if I could erase my crime by avoiding causing any more trouble for anyone. Even after I stopped fearing the police, though, my memories still ate at me, and I couldn’t tell anyone, not even in Confession, so I made myself pretend that miserable summer never happened.
Part of me couldn’t let go of my failure, though, couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened if I picked a different target or went out a different night. The camp I couldn’t attend came to represent a kind of freedom that I never had. To get it, I staked everything on a wild gamble—and lost.
I was a churning, chaotic mess, but I knew how to hide my feelings, and I still went through the motions expected of the nice boy, the good son. I did well enough in high school to qualify for scholarships and used that money to attend the college my parents picked for me. When I graduated, I entered the career they urged on me too. In a way, life was easy. All I had to do was accept all of the choices made for me.
But as hard as I tried, neither the dream nor my bitterness ever left me. Stealing that purse was the only decision I ever made for myself, and it ended in failure. Over the years, the guilt grew until it all but consumed me. It was no longer guilt for my crime, though; it was guilt over letting down the younger me who found the courage to make his own choice and earned nothing for it. The money I didn’t get that night became a symbol for the life I didn’t live.
I make my own money now, but it’s only the adult version of the piddling allowance my parents gave me. I go through my days smiling gently and speaking softly, still playing the role I created for myself so long ago, while spending most nights thinking about what I could have done, what I should have done, what I wish I could do in the future. I’ve let fear and guilt rule every aspect of my life and these thoughts will haunt me until I erase my most pivotal failure.
And now, after so many years, I’ve finally had enough. I just can’t live with it any longer. Not if I want to keep hold of whatever is left of the real me, of the person I’ve kept buried nearly my whole life.
* * *
The alley is trash-strewn, narrow, lit only by a finger of light from the street, pushing a hole through the darkness. I’m wearing ratty old clothes pulled from a donation box, a ski-mask covering my face, a screwdriver in my pocket, and pry bar in hand.
An iron grate covers the nearest window. The fittings are old and rusted; with just a small amount of pressure from the bar, they practically crumble. I’m careful not to make any noise as I lean the grate against the side of the building. My pulse races; I can hear it beating against my eardrum. It makes a still night feel raucous.
With a little force, the screwdriver slides under the edge of the window. Slowly, slowly, I wedge the sash upwards, wary of how it creaks. The catch is loose, though, as old as the grate, and it gives way with barely any sound at all.
Climbing through the window, I turn and lower it behind me. It’s unlikely anyone will pass through the alley at this hour—not on a Sunday night—but if they do, I hope the broken grate looks less suspicious with the window closed.
Quickly, quietly, I move through the darkened building. There’s a flashlight in my back pocket, but I don’t bother with it. I’ve planned this a thousand times. I know the way from this window, around the corner and down the long hallway, so well that I could travel it in my sleep.
The office door isn’t locked. Inside the room, I put the flashlight on. The room is small and windowless, so there’s no danger of being seen. Inside a narrow cabinet, crammed with old files and office supplies, there’s a lockbox. The cabinet isn’t locked, but the box is and it’s a sturdy little thing. Braced between the wall and my foot, though, the pry bar makes short work of it.
The box is filled with cash, mostly small bills, waiting to be deposited tomorrow morning when the banks open. I don’t count it before stuffing my pockets, but there must be close to two-thousand dollars. It’s more spending money than I’ve ever had in my life. Behind the mask, the smile that stretches my cheeks probably doesn’t look very nice at all.
Replacing the box in the cabinet, I catch myself. I’ve spent so long as first the nice boy, then the nice young man, always neat and tidy, that orderliness is deeply ingrained. But a burglar probably wouldn’t put the box back where it belongs and he wouldn’t calmly close the cabinet behind himself either.
Lashing out, the pry bar knocks computer paper, folders, and boxes of pens and staples from the cabinet shelves. The noise is loud in the small space, but it’s satisfying. The bar swings again and again until the cabinet is a wreck. Wild glee fills me and carries me around the room, wreaking destruction on everything in reach. It’s mindless. It’s liberating.
When I’m done, I’m breathing hard, but completely relaxed. After most of a lifetime living with the thing inside me, constantly gnawing at the corners of my mind, it’s like I’ve finally beaten it into submission. Under the beam of the flashlight, I look around the room. I’m filled with relief I’ve never known before. Confession never did as much for my soul.
Pleased as I am, I can’t admire my handiwork for long.
Flicking off the light, I listen for any unexpected sounds, any sign I’ve been heard. The building should be empty, but caution is rarely wasted. After a moment, I decide it’s clear and leave the building the same way I entered.
In the alley, I take off the ski mask, shove the screwdriver into the front of my belt and the pry bar into the back, keeping both hidden with the tails of my shirt. There’s nothing I can do about the grate, so it’s left as is.
With quick, sure steps, I’m on the street. There’s no one to see me, but I keep my smile in check.
Seven blocks away, there’s an empty lot people have been using as a dumping ground for longer than I can remember. I have a change of clothes in a garbage bag hidden beneath a pile of scrap wood and rain-sodden cardboard boxes. Within two minutes, the money, tools, and flashlight are in a metal box, buried beneath the scrap; my clothes are changed, and my hair is in place. Once again, I’m the nice young man people have known, liked, and even admired, for years.
The money will be safe until the excitement dies down. No sense being too eager. I return to the street, whistling a happy little tune.
I’ve gotten into the habit of taking late-night walks, stopping into the neighborhood bar for a glass of wine or sherry, and making small talk with whomever is around before heading back to my apartment and to bed. I wouldn’t dream of breaking that routine now. It’s a good alibi. Besides, this success requires some celebration.
The bartender greets me warmly and pours me a glass of inexpensive white wine without being asked. I thank him, sip it slowly, and we chat until it’s gone. Then I wish him a good night and set off for home. For the first time since childhood, I sleep like a baby. I don’t dream at all.
* * *
In the morning, I walk to my workplace and into a clamor. My coworkers, all women, all much older than me, ranging from late middle-age to borderline elderly, are in a panic.
It’s a moment or two before they notice my arrival. When they do, the nearest rushes over, grabs my arm and says, “Oh, Father McDermott! Thank God you’re here! It’s terrible! Someone robbed the church last night!”
“That is terrible,” I say. My face shows the shock and dismay she expects, but inside I’m giddy, laughing.
“Who would do such a thing?” Sister Gracie wails.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I tell her, and it’s not a lie. I have no idea who this new me is, but now that I’m finally free of the guilt and self-hatred that’s haunted me for so long, I’m excited to find out.
Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, most recently 3rd LAW: MIXED MAGICAL ARTS, a YA urban fantasy, and over one-hundred published stories, mostly crime, mystery, and westerns. He is a two-time Mustang Award finalist and a 2022 Derringer Award nominee. Find more at www.brandonbarrowscomics.com
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Nice Boy”:
We loved the unexpected main character in this and how author Brandon Barrows takes it from a story some might identify with, being one of a group of siblings, to one that heads into an unexpected direction. It’s a well-conceived piece that pokes fun at and points fingers at the problems middle siblings may have to deal with.