Luka was on his way home from school when he saw it. He had to look twice. Maybe he was just imagining.
“Geez! That looks like Kaleigh,” he said out loud. That’s the red sweater she wore at recess, the one with the star on the back.
Kaleigh was standing in front of the little tin box on the farm stand table, with the sign next to it: “PUT THE MONEY IN THE BOX IF WE’RE NOT HERE”
No one was there, just the boxes of cherry tomatoes, summer squash and bags of crisp autumn apples. Luka watched with one eye, as she stuffed apples into her pockets. Then, glancing toward the farm house, she popped cherry tomatoes into her mouth. Instead of putting money into the box, Kaleigh was taking dollar bills out and slipping them down the front of her shirt.
Luka wanted to shout, “Thou shalt not steal!” But he didn’t. Sometimes Luka would tell himself that when he was standing in line with his mom at the grocery store. It would be so easy to slip a Hershey bar into his jacket pocket, but he never had.
It was the one Commandment he had no trouble remembering from Sunday School. He knew better. And Kaleigh did, too. She often sat next to him at the little round table where they read stories about Jesus and the Disciples. And she never took money out of the little wooden collection plate. Something must be wrong.
Luka jumped when he heard a screen door slam. Kaleigh hopped on her bike and took off down the dirt road. Luka peeked again through the hole in the fence and saw old Mrs. Duffy shuffling toward the tin box. She opened it and slowly started to count the money.
“Should be more here,” she grumbled, as she reached for the notebook by the box where folks wrote down what they bought.
“Hank!” she yelled for her husband. “Come here! There’s money missing from the box! Look at these half full bags of apples! Something’s goin’ on here, and I don’t like it one bit!”
Hank walked over and checked it all out.
“Why, I’ll be darned! Couldn’t have been one of our neighbors. Must have been a stranger. Guess we’ll have to get a lock for that box.”
“And a lock for those bags of apples . . . how we gonna’ do that?” asked his wife.
Luka watched as Mrs. Duffy stuffed the tin box into the big pocket in the front of her flowered apron. Hank gathered up what produce was left on the table, put it into a wheelbarrow, and pushed it all up to the kitchen door.
Luka realized that it was getting late. His mother would be wondering where he was, so he took off running. What would he tell his mother? He decided he couldn’t tell her what he saw, not yet, anyway. He needed to talk to Kaleigh first.
His mother was worried about Luka, but not mad at him. He was relieved. He washed up quickly and helped her to set the table for dinner. He was unusually quiet that night.
His dad said, “What’s up, buddy? Have a bad day at school?”
Luka said, “It was OK,” and left it at that.
“Gotta’ go do my homework now,” he said, pushing in his chair and thanking his mom for dinner.
Back in his room, he flopped on his bed. It really bothered him that Kaleigh had stolen food and money from the Duffys. Everybody liked the Duffys. They gave out candied apples at Halloween and had all the kids in for cider and donut holes.
Stealing was bad enough, but now if also felt like he had lost a friend, at least the friend he thought he knew. Kaleigh, his friend, would never do such a thing. He would talk to her alone on the playground tomorrow. Maybe she would tell him what was going on.
It wasn’t hard to get Kaleigh alone. She often picked wild flowers along the edge of the playground, or swung by herself on the old swing set.
“Hey, Kaleigh!” Luka yelled from a distance. “I found a four leaf clover! This may be your lucky day!”
Kaleigh ambled over, slowly at first, then skipped along and plopped down on the grass next to Luka.
“See, over here, this is where I found it.”
Kaleigh said, “I could use some luck, Luka. Do you think it really works?”
“Who’s to say,” said Luka. Here, I want you to have it.”
He handed it to her, and thought she’d be happy, but her eyes looked sad.
“”Luka, can you keep a secret?”
“I’ll try,” said Luka”.
“I just don’t know what to do . . .”
“About what?” said Luka
“About my family,” said Kaleigh. “My dad lost his job six months ago, when the factory laid off all those workers. Mom’s got all of us kids to take care of, plus she takes in sewing to make a little money, but it’s just not enough. She cries all the time and yells at Dad – ‘Go find a job!’ but he says there aren’t any jobs. We had cereal with water again last night.”
“Wow, said Luka. “I didn’t know any of that”.
“I have to help, I’m the oldest,” said Kaleigh. But I can’t figure out how. And here’s the secret part: I stole some fruit from the Duffy’s stand last night, and some money to buy milk for our cereal, and peanut butter and bread. I feel awful about it. I told Mom the Duffys gave me the fruit, and that the store man said I looked too thin, and handed me a bag with the food and milk in it. But that’s just another lie. I hate to lie, on top of stealing – I’m a terrible person!”
Then Kaleigh began to cry. Luka found a tissue in his jacket pocket and handed it to Kaleigh. They sat like that for a long while, not saying anything, just thinking.
Finally, Luka said, “Kaleigh, what do you want to do?”
“I want to tell the Duffys I’m sorry, but I’m too scared to tell them face-to-face. I want to tell my Mom I didn’t mean to lie. I want to help my family get food.”
“You know what my mom would say, Kaleigh? She’d say ‘this is a grown-up problem’. You’re just a kid. Us kids are too young to work, nobody would hire us.”
“Yeah, but just maybe, if I wrote the Duffys a letter and said I was super sorry and would never do it again and why I did it, they would forgive me.”
“That’s a great idea, Kaleigh”.
“And you know what else?” said Luka. The Duffys are getting old. They could use some help sweeping up, and organizing the produce. Maybe they should have somebody sitting by the moneybox. You’re really good at math. I bet you could help them out. They could pay you in fruits and vegetables.”
“Great idea!” Kaleigh said. “You wanna’ know another secret?”
“Maybe not,” said Luka laughing.
“You’re the best friend a girl ever had!”
© October 6, 2009