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The Boy Who Stole
There was always somebody buying something at the shopping street. Old men haggled over the price of fresh tea, complaining about how drastically the cost of a mere one hundred grams had gone up in the past fifty years. Nagging children pulled their mothers’ sleeves, begging for a bubble blower or whistle and then pouting and refusing to move when their request was denied.
In the early morning when the shopkeepers would start up for the day, drinking their hot homegrown tea and setting out their artifacts for display, early rising construction workers and taxi drivers would stop for a quick baozi with soy milk before heading out to town. And it was when the shopkeeper retreated back into his little shop to find change for a 10-yuan bill, and the buyer was counting the baozi in the small plastic bag to make sure all four of them were there, that nobody would notice a small hand, maybe trembling with excitement, reach up to grab a fresh bun off the steamer.
And in the evening, when everyone was back from work and the young women would shop for shoes and purses with their friends while the families with young children would stop to look at a toy car or a wooden sword, once again nobody would notice a pair of socks or a hat disappear from the rack.
This went on for months. Of course the boy had no means of keeping track of the days and months as they went by, but the shopkeepers of the town had noticed that recently, they had all been missing one or two items when they did an inventory check at the end of the day. The boy had been smart when he decided not to consistently steal from the same shop; however, what he didn’t realize was that in such a small town everyone knew each other and news spread very quickly.
Now the boy was unaware that his thefts had been noticed. He also was not conscious of the fact that as the time wore on he had become more confident. When he first started stealing from local shops, he was afraid to steal more than once a day. If he stole something in the morning, he was afraid to go out from the abandoned woodshed that he was using as a home for fear that he would be recognized and punished. But as time progressed, he became more daring, stealing nearly five things from different shops in a single day.
He slept on two different sets of bed sheets, compressed together on the cold ground. He had nearly 3 different outfits, as well as hats, gloves, scarves, and even a pair of sunglasses. The boy did not know that he had become a kleptomaniac, nor did he know what kleptomania was, for he could not speak or read or write. But he believed he now led the life of a rich person, and as he looked over his stash of toys, cups, ice-cream wrappers, bracelets, clothes, shoes, paintings, and so on and so forth, he was filled with pride. And as he stole more and more every day, he became reckless and careless in his thefts.
One morning, instead of taking just one baozi, the boy grabbed the entire basket and ran off with it. Luckily nobody saw him, but when the shopkeeper went to serve baozi to his next customer of the morning he saw with dismay that one of his baozi baskets had vanished.
Another night an expensive train set was stolen, which had been still in its unopened box on display. In such a small, poor village, a train set like such was a luxury that only the wealthiest villagers could afford. Ordinary people would gaze in awe at the magnificent scene depicted on the outside of the box, where the engine was shown coming around a mountain, smoke billowing and headlight shimmering. Sometimes the fascinating toy would draw groups of wide-eyed children who would stand up as close to the set as the shopkeeper allowed, imagining countless hours of fun if only they owned that godlike train set. So naturally, when it went missing one night, it had nearly half the town asking its whereabouts.
The shopkeeper who owned the famous train set was perhaps the wealthiest shop owner in town. Many other shopkeepers would befriend him as an attempt to learn some of his techniques for earning money. This gave him a long string of contacts, which meant he could easily have nearly every shop owner in the town keeping their eyes open for anyone and everyone who looked like a thief. This the boy also did not know.
A few days later, the criminal-at-large was still on the loose. At the end of each day, shopkeepers reported everything intact and nothing missing from their shops, and none had seen anyone who looked like they would steal something. But the next day brought some commotion.
One shopkeeper had caught the boy with his hand in another shopkeeper’s pot of boiled eggs.
“Hey!” he shouted. The boy would always hear people shouting – maybe they were trying to bargain with the shopkeeper, or calling to one another, or trying to flag down a tuk-tuk, but because he never had parents to teach him how to speak and he didn’t have anyone to talk to, he did not know the shopkeeper’s angry exclamation was directed at him.
“There’s the thief!”
By now other shopkeepers were starting to leave their shops and run after the small boy, causing such a ruckus that a few shoppers were starting to run with them as well.
After hearing footsteps and shouts getting closer, the boy must have realized he had been caught, because he ran as fast as his lean little legs would allow. But no matter how fast he was, he was only a child, and could not outrun a horde of adults.
Pushing himself as much as he was able, the boy still couldn’t escape the reach of one shopkeeper. His stolen shirt was grasped by the sleeve and he fell, getting dirt marks on his stolen pants and dirt in his stolen shoe.
“Got him!” Exclaimed the man. This was met with cheers from everyone in the group, although some were still confused as to why they were all chasing after the boy.
The boy was dragged along the ground with an iron hand clutching his wrist. He was being taken to the shopkeeper from whom he stole the train set to see what he requested to be done.
“We caught your thief!” One of the men triumphantly declared as the mob of thief-catchers came into view. The shopkeeper’s eyes lit up as he looked upon the struggling boy clad in, wouldn’t you know it, red sneakers plucked from his shop as well.
“Excellent,” he said after a moment. “I’ll take care of this.”
Yanking the poor boy’s ear, he grinned and revealed his rows of yellow-brown teeth.
“Got you now, boy!” the shopkeeper shouted into the young thief’s terror-stricken visage. “What’s your name?”
There was no response for three reasons. First of all, the boy couldn’t understand what was being asked. Second, even if he could understand, he had no name to give. And lastly, he was frozen so stiff with fear it would take a fire-breathing dragon to thaw him out.
The shopkeeper retched and spit a yellowish wad over his shoulder.
“You don’t want to talk?” he bellowed. Again he was not rewarded with a response. “Where’s my train set, boy? Take me to where you keep your stolen things!”
The boy’s silence frustrated the shopkeeper and sparked an idea. “How would you like to live in a new town?”
Every couple of weeks, he and a few other shopkeepers traveled to a nearby town, about an hours drive away, to do business with a couple of storeowners there. It was there when, a couple weeks prior, he had stumbled upon the train set that his own town treasured so much.
“Just speak up if you don’t want to!” this amused the crowd that had gathered around the scene. When the boy still didn't give an answer, the shopkeeper lost his patience and took action.
Grabbing the boy by the upper arm, he pulled the limp child along the ground to his gray minivan with a dent in the side. He yanked open the sliding side door and shoved the boy in, climbing in after him. The shopkeeper then tied the thief’s wrists together with some string and buckled the seat belt, making sure to lock it in place.
The next trip to the neighboring town was scheduled for early the next morning. However, the shopkeepers decided it might be better to leave right at the moment, since they had the boy in their possession, and then return late that night. So they all piled into that gray minivan with a dent in the side, the two biggest shopkeepers settling down on either side of the young thief, and departed from the shopping street in their small village.
It was a long and miserable ride for the boy. The shopkeepers were in a celebratory mood, made obvious by the radio turned up loud and the shouting and laughter for the whole hour-long journey. All the while, the boy was jostled between those two brawny storeowners, pushed to the left by one and shoved back to the right by the other until he squeezed himself as thin as he could and tried to stay within the narrow space in the middle.
After what seemed like the entire day, they finally reached their highway exit and veered off the road. The boy knew they couldn’t be far from their destination, since farmhouses and a few buildings began to pop up along the road as opposed to the long fields alongside the highway.
Sure enough, before too long the gray minivan with a dent in the side came to a swerving stop in front of a large market square, the engine sputtering to silence. The boy, relieved that the journey was finally over, nearly pushed the burly shopkeeper on his right in his haste to exit the automobile. But before he could stretch out his limbs and breathe in the nice fresh air of a new place, he felt a hard slap to the back of his head, sending him reeling for a moment. The lead shopkeeper grabbed his collar dragged him along as the group entered the fair.
For the next long period of time, the shopkeepers took shifts standing with the boy, making sure he didn’t run away, and trying to pass him off as a worker for hire. This way, they figured, they would be rid of the thief and make some money in the process.
“Worker for hire, worker for hire!” the shopkeeper standing with him now called out to passersby. “He’ll wash dishes, clean the floor, wash the laundry, and more!”
For a long time, there was nobody who would take the offer. A few people had looked him over and asked a few questions to the shopkeeper on duty, but in the end none of them were willing to hire the boy.
At the end of the day, as the tarps started disappearing one by one and the shoppers started returning home for the night, the group of disheartened shopkeepers decided it was time to pack up shop as well. Leaving the exhausted boy in the now half-empty lot, they piled back into their gray minivan with a dent in the side, oblivious to what would become of the troublesome thief.
The shopkeepers would return every few weeks. They came to the same market each time, but they never again saw that little boy whose face none of them would forget. Chatting with nearly every seller in the square, they still didn’t come upon anybody who was the victim of a theft.
Now, the story of The Boy Who Stole is a popular one for parents to share with their children. Children are warned that if they steal from shops, they will be taken to a different village and abandoned there. Some parents say nobody wanted the boy, and he died in that market square. Others are sure he tried to follow the highway back to his old town. But through all the stories, none of them have a perfect account of what really did happen to The Boy Who Stole.