BETTER LESSONS • by Aaron Polson

Stefan found the monkey hiding under a dumpster in the alley behind the Caleta Hotel. He was a scrawny Barbary Macaque with matted, clumpy hair. Lost and hungry. Stefan, himself a little lost and hungry in a different sense, lured him with a biscuit. He smiled as the monkey’s fingers, long and pink and trembling, snatched the treat from his hand. Crumbs tumbled from his busy mouth.

“You’re quick with those fingers. Far away from the Ape’s Den or the tunnels, too.” Stefan hoisted the monkey on his shoulder. “We’ll call you Yanko for God is gracious to poor Stefan. We can have a good business, you and I.”

Yanko learned the quiet art of the pickpocket, and took to thievery like it was oxygen. The pair worked the crowds of tourists: Europeans and Americans rapt by Gibraltar’s stark beauty and the mobs of Yanko’s cousins, delightful in their comfort with humans and comic antics. Stefan’s purse grew, swelled with wallets, jewelry, and watches liberated by Yanko’s hungry fingers, and the two pirates lived with impunity in a hostel room, anonymous and safe. Who could name the thieves from an island of grinning monkeys?

Stefan often whispered stories from his beloved Romania at night, drifting off with words still tumbling from his lips. “Perhaps, some day we will go, you and I,” he would say. He mentioned his wife and daughter, holding his finger and thumb together to indicate the gold locket his precious Sofia wore. “A heart with a picture of sweet Florica tucked inside. My little flower,” Stefan said, his voice rattling with time and memory.

“I was too young to be a papa.  Too young and too hungry.”

Stefan fell asleep with the image of Sofia in his eyes.  He woke alone in the dark of early morning and searched for his friend.  Yanko returned after dawn, still lean despite his fill of biscuits and fruit and nuts for weeks.  His tiny fingers clutched a heavy gold chain and a fat brooch bright with diamonds.

“You’ve fallen in love with the thrill, little one.” Stefan smiled. “Have you been hopping ledges of the Caleta again, creeping through sleepers’ open windows to have at their luggage?”

Yanko chattered, his eyes glittering and black, pink fingers pressed against the treasure until his knuckles turned white.

On the second morning Yanko crouched in the center of an array of gems and heirlooms laid out in rows on Stefan’s dresser. His pink hands rested on his knees.

“All from one night’s haul?” Stefan’s smile wavered. “Success has made you greedy, my friend. We must take caution. You’ll be caught… maybe worse.” He patted the monkey’s hairy head. “But with this,” Stefan’s hand swept over the cache, “we can live like kings, little one.”

Stefan brushed the treasures into a wooden box and stashed it under the bed.

Yanko waited at the windowsill on the third morning. A thin gold chain trailed from his paw. The monkey pulled his closed paw to his chest as Stefan approached.

“What is it?”

Pink fingers unfolded. In the middle of Yanko’s palm lay a tiny heart of gold.

“A locket?”  Stefan’s heart pinched against his ribcage.

Yanko held his prize forward.

“It’s like… it’s like my Sofia’s,” Stefan said, picking up the locket with one hand and touching the opposite to his throat. “I can see against the skin of her neck.”  Stefan fumbled with the clasp and pried it open.

“I thought… perhaps…” Stefan raised his eyes from the empty locket. The window stood open, and Yanko was gone.

The next day, before he left the hostel for the docks, Stefan opened the wooden box and took just enough for passage to the mainland and rail fare to Romania. He dragged the box to the Caleta and left it just inside the lobby.

“Sir,” the concierge called. “You’ve left something behind.”

Stefan paused at the door.  “I know.  And I’m going home to find it.”

Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires.

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Every Day Fiction