Emily and Jordan rummage around at the end of the alley.
She finds a candy cane. She reads its label.
“World peace candy cane,” it says. “Delicious peppermint on the outside—world peace on the inside! 90 calories.”
She wrinkles her nose.
“Too sweet!” she says. She tosses it aside. She rummages around some more.
She finds a newspaper that shows the future.
She flips through the headlines. She notes the lottery number. She tosses it aside.
“Ooh,” Jordan says.
He’s found a magical pony with utensils for its mane.
“Oh, man, I wanted a pony.”
“Mneh,” he says, sticking out his tongue. “Magical fork pony.”
“Stupid pony,” Emily sulks. Then she brightens. “Here!”
She holds up a pair of x-ray dinners. They’re like microwave dinners, but you can see through them. “Salisbury steak,” she says. “And welsh rarebit!”
Jordan and Emily lead the pony out the chink in the back wall of the alley. They head around the block. When they get to the man with his Stitch Boxing booth, at the alley’s other mouth, they cross the street to their parents’ little white house. They get the key out from under the mat. They sneak quietly in.
Emily pads down the hall and around the corner.
The pony tromps up into the foyer.
Emily and Jordan both freeze at the clomp-clomp-clomp sound of the magical pony’s hooves on the foyer floor.
“Anyone?” Jordan hisses.
There’s a pause.
“Nope!” Emily says, cheerfully.
She strolls back. She turns on the lights. She pops the welsh rarebit into the microwave oven. The microwave whirs and the little table in it spins.
“Thank God,” Jordan says. “A night to ourselves.”
Emily grins at him.
“Want to go rummaging again after dinner?” he says.
“Nah,” she says. “The bullies were bad today.”
He looks her over clinically.
“You don’t seem too bruised,” he says. “Who was it?”
“Though I think,” Emily says, “that they should really call Steel Jaw Kay a steel, and not an iron.”
“Hard to call a bully what they don’t want to be called,” Jordan says.
His pony flops on the floor and Jordan flops, in turn, against its warm magical belly.
“You got off pretty easy,” he says.
“I’m tough,” she says.
“If you were tough,” he says, “you wouldn’t be beaten on by bullies.”
“I’m a pacifist!” she protests.
“Hmm,” he says dubiously.
“It’s just,” she says, grabbing the rarebit and tossing the steak in the microwave, “all the parts of them that aren’t iron. That I don’t want to hurt. And it’s not like I can do anything I like to Lindsey’s leg or Luke’s hand, neither; I mean, what if it got bent up and she couldn’t walk?”
“Why wouldn’t she be able to walk if Iron Fist Luke got bent?”
Emily parses that. She frowns.
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a very good question.”
“I think,” he says, then pauses. “You the rarebit or the steak?”
She looks at the x-ray dinner. She hesitates. Then she says, firmly, “Steak,” and slides forward to give him the rarebit. He grabs a fork and munches.
“I think,” he says, “that you’re just not up for a fight, and this whole pacifism thing is an excuse.”
“You would,” she says.
“It’s your limited brain capacity,” she says.
He makes a face.
“Well, maybe I’ll just get an electronic brain coprocessor from the back of the alley,” he says.
“Maybe you should!”
He sighs. He reviews. He thinks he’s lost that one.
“Still think you’re chicken,” he says.
“I’ll box Stitch,” she says.
Words like a bomb.
Now he sits up. Now he looks serious. He says, “Really?”
“All fabric and stuffing,” she says. “So it’s not very well immoral.”
“But Mayor Cloon—“
“Mayor Cloon’s a ponce,” she says. “He couldn’t box his way out of a paper bag.”
“And Mrs. Persimmons?”
This gives Emily a reason to hesitate. Mrs. Persimmons is actually pretty scary, and the Stitch doll took her down fast. But finally she says, “Well, it’s not very well courage if it’s a guaranteed win, now is it?”
“You’re a better man than I,” he says, waving his fork and dripping a clear bit of cheese on his face.
He scrubs it off.
She looks at the microwave. It’s having a hard time with the x-ray dinner due to the Salisbury nature of the steak aggravating the discrepancy in the wavelengths.
Her stomach rumbles but her chin comes up.
“Now,” she says.
And he gets awkwardly to his feet and leaves the fork pony there and he follows her out, right to the Stitch Boxing booth.
“Box Stitch?” the booth man asks. “5 cents.”
She looks between the man and the Stitch doll. The man’s got a salt and pepper beard. The Stitch doll’s got the seasoned look of a doll who’s been in a hundred fights and never lost not one.
“Box Stitch,” he says, his voice carnie-low, “and if you win, you can go down to the other end of the alley, and there, little girl, there—“
“It’s like materialist Narnia,” he says. “Like do-anything-you-please Disneyland. You can get anything you might want there, if you can just get past Stitch.”
She looks at him.
She’s not entirely sure how to play this one.
“I find that hard to believe,” Jordan says. His voice is consciously flat. He holds up a nickel. “So I will certainly pay this young woman’s boxing fee and see what then transpires.”
The man grins.
“You really gonna do it, Emily?” Jordan says, in his normal voice.
“For the chance to win anything I could possibly want?” she asks. She stifles the laughter that seeks so desperately to rise. “How can I possibly resist?”
Jordan’s voice lowers.
“Seriously? This doll is badass. I mean, you’ve got weight on him, but he’s got four arms and I think he can talk.”
Emily looks Jordan straight in the eye.
“Do it,” she says.
And Jordan tosses the man the coin.
Bonus! Due to recent interest in the author’s intent, I’ve posted earlier versions of this story on merin.hitherby.com