There were not many rooms remaining to be meticulously ransacked by the courteous but still immoral robbers Misters Smyth and Callahan. Ransacked may be too strong a verb. It can dead lift 200 pounds, while robbed is still working on passing 80. Either way, the gentlemanly con artists had only stolen a few select items. To be more precise, only Mr. Callahan had stolen anything from the giant, abandoned mansion: a dirty, old book. And Mr. Smyth did not know his partner had taken it.
“Well, should we make our final decisions on what we would like to loot?” asked Mr. Callahan. They were now in the bathroom.
“You seem jittery. Are you itching to take something from this bathroom? I must say, it is a rather nice washroom, but used soap is not my idea of buried treasure,” replied Mr. Smyth.
Mr. Callahan paused before responding. He did not want to ruin his cover and reveal that he had stolen the mysterious book. Also, by pausing he realized that he was in fact itchy. His scalp was drier than usual; he had run out of conditioner earlier that week. After a few satisfying scratches, he responded. “No, nothing of interest here. We can move on.”
“I didn’t mean to be pushy. If something tickles your fancy here, by all means take it,” said Mr. Smyth. At this, Mr. Callahan desperately fought the urge to rub his scalp again. Maybe he was simply going bald.
“But let me know first,” the flaky-skin-free cohort continued. “It would simply be a demonstration of poor manners if you stole something without notifying your partner.”
Mr. Callahan’s heart skipped a beat. It was playing a playground hopscotch game, but it was the awkward second grader who could not yet control his limbs with precision. When the heart’s owner had regained solid control of this vital organ, he replied, “No, I’m fine. Let’s move on. We’re almost done here, and I think there may be a few holdouts. No reason to waste precious storage space on a bottle of moistening conditioner.” Mr. Callahan was a stoic and strong-willed man to fight the urge to swipe the aforementioned bottle. But he knew he could only privately steal one thing without Mr. Smyth catching on, and barely even that.
Mr. Callahan decided to take the lead back into his robbing hands. He abruptly turned away from the smooth tiled shower wall and walked briskly out the door. After glancing over each shoulder to pick a direction, he chose right and went left into a strange room. He had seen nothing like it and neither had Mr. Smyth, as could be presumed by the fact that upon entering he stopped and stared for several long moments. The room was full of books.
“I had heard of such rooms, but I did not think they truly existed,” whispered Mr. Smyth.
“Same here,” agreed Mr. Callahan. “It’s quite the sight.”
“It is. An ugly and wasteful site. I cannot imagine who would keep such a stash of dirty, old books. Such as waste of a room.”
“Maybe this was a quarantine of sorts,” Mr. Callahan suggested. “A place to keep these horrid objects apart from the rest of their belongings.” He spoke the words, but he was harboring a latent curiosity. He wanted to remove the books from their dusty shelves, peruse through their yellowing pages, and smell their musty scent. He was not sure if this would be pleasing, but nevertheless, these actions piqued his interest.
“Mr. Callahan, are you listening?” Apparently Mr. Smyth had been speaking about books’ uselessness as his partner was submerging himself in his pool of thoughts. “I’d rather not dilly or dally in this horrific space any longer, so let us move on to complete our grand tour of this mansion.”
“Right. Lead the way, Mr. Smyth.”
As the two partners in crime left the home’s library, Mr. Callahan wanted to steal one final glance at the remnants of a culture long gone. Mr. Smyth just wanted to steal something valuable.
Condition. Verb. To psychologically habituate someone to react to a stimulus in a predetermined fashion. Conditioner. Noun. Someone who performs such an act.
Ivan’s legs wobbled to and fro. They shook not from lack of muscle control, but from a surplus of nerves. Not extra physical nerves of sensory input, but metaphorical nerves of anxiousness. He stared at Katarina. She was an expert in every sense of the word (there is just one, in case you were curious). In record time, she leaped, weaved, and gracefully landed at each position. No one could best her in her own game: hopscotch.
The name was not an affable one to Ivan. He could not hop with dexterity, for starters. And he was not even Scottish, so he had no backup trait of worthiness. No, he could try all he might, but his jumps could only be called stumbles, his prances not even worth mentioning. Ivan had tried for years to excel at this playground pastime, but to no avail. His parents assured him that when he grew he would suddenly acquire the skills necessary to succeed at hopscotch, but Ivan could not wait. His schoolyard reputation hinged on his ability to jump on either one or two legs, switching at whim, without stumbling. Impressing Katarina required this skill, too.
This day at recess was no different. The children had all lined up, barely holding in their excitement over another round of hopscotch. Ivan had joined them as he always did (he decided long ago that it was better to hop and make a fool of himself than avoid the game and be seen as an outsider), but calling his emotion “excitement” would be an outright lie. And even elementary school-age children know that lying will make you go bald.
As it neared Ivan’s turn to hop, he felt the familiar sensation of anxiety beginning its course through his body. And just like they always did when he felt nervous, his arms began to shake. And because his arms were quivering, his body felt it necessary to make his legs quiver. And when legs are trembling, playing hopscotch is impossible.
Ivan stepped up to the first square. He glanced across the board at Katarina, who simply raised an eyebrow at him. Ivan looked down. A single square first. He slowly raised one quaking leg into the air. The knee on his other bent slightly. With a might push, he launched himself a few inches into the air.
And he fell.
Now at times like this, one expects that the other children will point and laugh at the kid who made the gaff. As a culture, we are trained to react this way and anticipate the same behavior in others. But not so with Ivan’s schoolmates. No, it was not because his peers were abnormally kind and caring for their age. It was because of Ivan.
Ivan had come up with the brilliant idea that every time he fell, he could give lollipops to his classmates. With candy in hand, they would not think of laughing, both because they had solid sugar preoccupying their mouths and because they felt indebted to their clumsy friend for the free sweets. After doing this for a few weeks, Ivan ran out of lollipops. Curiously, his peers still did not laugh whenever he fell. They also licked their lips as if they were eating an invisible lollipop. Ivan did not know what caused this strange behavior, but who was he to question it? After all, they had ceased causing him social pain.
Ivan picked himself off the ground and brushed off his pant legs. He glanced around, just to make sure the teasing behavior had not restarted. Everyone was silent. Ivan looked at Katarina.
She licked her lips.