Freely Given – Connor Mellegers

Freely Given – Connor Mellegers

February 2022

Forty ravs on the Bone and it was all the Tech could talk about. Taye had done it, so said everyone. His name was on the lips of every student at the Tech the same as if he’d given the money straight to them. Forty ravs. Enough to live on for years if you were careful, and he’d given the lot to the Bone as if it were nothing. Sheena said Taye had shown her the scars he’d gotten on his hands and knees working to earn it through all sorts of hard labor. And now the secret was out, and students and instructors alike were lining up to shower him with praise and affection and gifts of their own. Already, stories of the gifts he’d received were spreading like wildfire, fueled by the fact that he made a grand display of denying that he had donated anything at all. Genuine humility, of course. Someone like Taye would never aggrandize. After all, he’d given forty ravs to the Bone.

I met Joan in the gymnasium of the Three Oaks community center. The huge wooden room was empty save a few stray balls and frayed mats scattered across the floor. Normally, the floor would be covered in the refuse of after-school activity: pylons, hoops, balls of all shapes and sizes, but all of those were neatly away in the storage room, which meant Joan had gotten a serious head start on me. I rushed to the supply closet and grabbed a push-broom. By the time I got back, Joan had put everything away and had already begun disinfecting the equipment. I put my head down and began sweeping.

Joan and I had been assisting the center managers for years. The managers were responsible for the center’s operation, of course, but between managing their programs and supporting the needs of their visitors, they barely had any time to keep the facility clean. We provided our labor as a gift to the managers, and they kept the center running as a gift to the entire community. After our labor, we would record our gifts in the official registry. Both of us checked off what we had each done of the sweeping, mopping, sanitizing, etc. The work each of us did affected how much official credit we would receive and thereby the gifts, respect, and esteem that would follow in equal measure. Unofficially, what we did affected how the center’s managers saw us. You could see them following your pencil as you marked off what you’d done, raising their eyebrows in appreciation, or letting them furrow in disappointment. You could hear it in their voice, too. “Thank you for your generous gift to Three Oaks and thank you for yours.” It was all in that and. I couldn’t be that and. Not today. Not after Taye had given forty ravs to the Bone.

Joan started mopping the second I’d swept up the dust and dirt. I nearly ran to fill another bucket and begin mopping from the opposite side. I kept my head down, my motions fluid and perfect. Mopping half a gym might only have been worth half the credit, but if I was quick enough, I could get to the next task before Joan and have a chance to catch up to her. After five minutes mopping in silence, I finally turned to look at her from across the room. She was grinning.

“What?” I said, turning my eyes back to the floor, desperate for this chance to clean while she was distracted.

“You heard about Taye,” she said. I groaned and she laughed. Of course. She knew exactly why I hadn’t taken a breath since I arrived. She’d been laughing at me the whole time.

“Everyone heard,” I said. “Very generous of him to give all that money. Thirty ravs, was it?”

Her smirk made my stomach jump. “Forty. And you don’t have to rush, you know. I’ll split credit with you, whatever we’ve done.”

I mulled it over. It was clever of her, but that was no surprise coming from Joan. Splitting credit meant that officially we’d done the same work and would share whatever esteem we’d earned in the eyes of the community. Considering how much she’d already done, that was a generous gift, though a gift to one person was nothing compared to a gift to the entire community. I could refuse, but that would be disrespectful. Perhaps doubly so for the base intentions with which the gift would have been received.

“Oh please, Ev. I won’t tell anyone,” she said.

Another gift, this time hidden. At this point, refusing would be irresponsible.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Taye won’t get official credit without disclosing openly,” Joan said.

“And that just makes it more impressive.”

She nodded and scrubbed at a stubborn spot on the floor. Anonymous gifts were often the most worthy. Little chance of credit meant that a gift could truly be freely given. But they were rare. A gift-giver deserved their credit and had a right to it. Earning official credit meant that everyone could see what you’d done. The higher your credit, the greater the gifts you would receive from those around you. Everyone wanted to give to the most generous and share in the righteousness of their generosity. But Taye had given a massive gift in near-perfect silence. And he’d given to the Bone. Few ever gave to the Bone and what little they did was rarely worth having. Anyone could take from the Bone — whatever they wanted and however much they wanted. A crowd of takers, ingrates, and even hoarders could enter that sad little building on the edge of town and walk off with all forty ravs without so much as a reason. Few had it in their hearts to give to those who took from the Bone. To give cash was even more unheard of.

But Taye hadn’t cared. He must have labored for wages for months — hard, thankless work without any credit or respect — just to anonymously dump it all directly to the Bone. And his gift would never appear on the official ledgers or records. Those takers and hoarders would never know who had given them all that money. A gift like that was unheard of. But we had heard of it. And now, official credit or not, everyone knew what he had done. It was genius. Genius and risky. Hell, who wouldn’t be impressed? Even I’d go out with Taye if he asked me, not that I was looker enough to be asked. If he did, it would just be another gift to his credit.

“It is very impressive,” Joan agreed. The edges of her curly black hair bobbed into the soapy water as she bent over the bucket. “But it’s hard to believe Taye could earn that much money through labor alone.”

“Sheena saw the scars,” I reminded her.

She scoffed. “Everyone has scars, they don’t mean anything just because a credit-hungry looker like Sheena thinks they do. Any labor worth doing is given as a gift. Earning wages like that means taking on labor no one else wants to do, work in a factory or mine, or some other horrible place. Taye’s a shrimp from a good family. Wage labor enough to earn forty ravs would break him.” She snapped up and her eyes landed on mine. “Unless he had help. Or maybe it was a gift. Maybe he wasn’t the one who made the donation at all.”

My mouth dropped and my feet squeaked on the gym floor. A gift gifted. Credit for an incredibly generous donation freely given away. That wouldn’t just be impressive, that would be astronomical. Untouchable. Worth all the respect you could imagine. Even without official credit, if that leaked, you’d have more than just half the Tech longing for you. Hell, even the instructors might go for you.

“You heard something?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t hear anything,” she said.

I huffed and slammed my mop into the bucket, splashing water all around me.

“Then why even bring it up?” It was hurtful to get my hopes up like that. That kind of gift would be fantastic to witness. To even be in the presence of that kind of generosity is something everyone dreams of.

Joan sighed one of her big sighs. Older-sister sighs, I call them, even though we’re not related and my mom sometimes makes gifts of meals to her family. All the more significant for the fact her family isn’t offered many gifts.

“What I mean, Ev, is no one has heard anything, yet. But maybe they could. And who knows what name could be attached. I mean, there’s no official record; anyone could have done it.”

I stared at her for a long time. Joan wasn’t a looker, same as me. She wasn’t particularly athletic either. Her math and writing, though better than mine, were hardly enviable and no student at the Tech would want to trade places with her in a million years. But she had these ideas sometimes. Wild ideas. Ideas so twisted it hurt my brain to try and wrap itself around them.

“Anyone could have done it,” I said, my mouth still failing to close.

“Anyone,” she agreed.

“Like you?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she shook her head in big arcs. “Who would believe that? My family are known takers,” she said.

I nodded and turned away. We never talked about it. It felt shameful to even mention. Her parents accepted any gifts they were offered and even took from the Bone: money, food, furniture, whatever they needed. But they never gave to anyone. They never seemed to labor at all. True takers. What little they did receive was the result of Joan’s labors at Three Oaks and her gifts to fellow students. But even so, she carried the stain of her parents’ greed. No one would believe she was capable of such generosity.

“But you could have done it,” she said.

I scoffed. I wish I’d done it. I wish I could have done it. I’d never had anywhere near forty ravs in my life. I only ever labored as a gift. I never needed to work for anything so shameful as pay.

“Your grandmother visited last year, didn’t she? I heard she was a hoarder.”

I tried to scoff again but my tongue was heavy and dry. Joan was really saying this. Grandma Ross was a hoarder and a wage taker. It had always brought my dad shame, but he still invited her to stay with us every year. Hoarders sometimes gave chunks of their fortune to family members. It was known to happen. It might be believed. But to really suggest taking credit for someone else’s gift? I’d never even heard it done before. A credit thief would be below even the least remorseful takers.

“Taye earned his credit, Joan.”

“Did he? Because he donated it all at once? Because it was some grand gesture of a gift? We give away our labor every day and who notices? I’m still a taker and you’re still a laggard. But Taye gives some money to the Bone and suddenly he gets gifts and respect you and I could only dream of. Why does he deserve the credit more than you, Ev?”

This was too much. What she was saying was ludicrous. Taye had been generous. He deserved whatever anyone wanted to give him. “It was an impressive gift,” I said.

“All gifts are impressive. Sheena’s kind only care about what’s novel. What draws enough attention to earn them praise. Perhaps they’d like to hear something even more novel.”

My heart felt like it might leap out of its chest. I kept my eyes focused on the floor. “Joan, we couldn’t…”

“Couldn’t what? Tell people what we might have heard?” She laughed, picked up her mop and bucket, and left the gym, leaving me behind to stare. She didn’t look back.

Billy was the first. Then Eliza-Beth. The king and queen of lookers at the Tech. Then the rest followed: Cara, Saraisa, Johanssen, Themi, all the lookers worth seeing lined up outside my locker between classes. And the instructors. The grins they gave me when I passed by could light up a room. Huge, massive things that made you feel like the smartest kid in the Tech. And suddenly I was, however you sliced it. My grades went through the roof. Study notes from lectures I’d never heard and essays I didn’t remember writing popped up in my bag and my locker, gifts from instructors and students alike, freely given and taken. And yet, even accepting them, my collateral didn’t drop. It couldn’t. My gift had been that big, that selfless, that colossally unheard of. A donation that large and the credit for it freely given away. I could take jobs for wages. I could take gifts from anyone who offered. I could be the biggest hoarder there ever was and I’d still be the greatest gift giver the Tech had ever seen. I was infallible.

One day my dad called me in after school. He’s a big man, tall and grim. He has a massive smile, the kind like Eliza-Beth’s that could light up a room with only the flash of a few teeth. But we never saw it at home. He always said his smiles were gifts and too precious to waste on family. But that day he smiled. Mom too. Even Geoffrey, who’d never given or accepted anything from me a day in his life, was smiling. They all had gifts in their hands. Delicately wrapped in the paper and ribbons you saved for really special occasions. I smiled back at them.

“Here are some small tokens of our appreciation,” my father said. Small tokens. He actually said that! My father had met mayors he was less respectful to, lifelong dedicants and gift-givers of the highest order who didn’t hear such words, but he said them to me.

Of course, not all those who looked were lookers. I once saw Taye from across the Tech cafeteria. His stock had fallen dramatically after everyone found out it was me who had given 40 ravs to the Bone and not him.

I was surrounded by people. They jostled to see who would be able to give me lunch. They pressed around me, beautiful meals made with love offered up with admiration and desperation. Whatever lunch I accepted bathed the giver in the light of my generosity, earning them the highest credit possible from one small gift. I took one, a dal made by a looker named Kiel. It smelled amazing. The others pulled back, staring crestfallen at their unaccepted meals.

Across the cafeteria, Taye pulled out a brown paper bag. Eating one’s own lunch was something only takers and those most pathetic were ever forced to do. No one cooked for themselves by choice. Back before my star had risen, Joan and I would swap meals we had each made. It wasn’t prestigious, but at least it meant we ate through the generosity of those around us and not our own petty labor. Joan would scoff every time. She thought it was pointless and silly, but I always insisted. Even so, whatever she had cooked was always made just the way I liked it.

My stomach flipped as I watched Taye open his crumpled paper bag. I thought of asking one of those I’d rejected to give their lunch to Taye as a gift to me. But then I saw him slide his bag across the table as someone else did the same. I couldn’t make out who it was before Kiel pulled me to their table and into that afternoon’s gifts.

I was laying on the hill outside of the Tech with Billy and Eliza-Beth. We were drunk and sweet off compliments and the summer air and all sorts of gifts freely given and taken and given back in return. Joan walked up the hill to greet us. We were covered only by a thin, white blanket. She smiled and the three of us giggled. Joan was from a family of known takers. Even a giggle was a gift.

“Enjoying your afternoon?” Joan asked. I hadn’t seen her in ages. Our work at Three Oaks was a thing of the past, just as needing to labor for credit was a thing of the past. The three of us stared at her, smiling and unblinking.

“It’s funny,” Joan said in her older-sister tone. “How much a gift can change your life. Receive the right gift and you might find yourself surrounded by friends you never even knew you had.”

Billy barked a laugh. “And what would you know about giving gifts?” he asked.

“I know that accepting them can cost just as much as giving them,” Joan said.

Billy and Eliza-Beth both laughed maniacally and rolled into each other, pulling me back into a pile of kisses. They both joked, as we rolled around, about the taker who thought she could educate us on gifts.

I tried to let the sun and grass and attention wash over me, but Joan’s words flew around my mind long after she’d left our private hill. I had forgotten. In the face of the gifts, and attention, and love that felt so right, so perfectly right, I had forgotten where they came from. I had let myself believe that this was my life, finally earned after years of under-acknowledged labor, creativity, and kindness freely given to those around me. But in reality, it had been a gift, one bestowed on me by Joan through the rumors she’d spread.

It is not a bad thing to accept a gift. But to take more than you give, to think only of what you can take, that is what makes a taker. When I had ascended to the ranks of the most generous, I gave a few rare gifts where I could. But I now realized I hadn’t given enough. I had forgotten that I had taken a gift at all. It had been freely given and freely taken in return, but it was wholly unreciprocated. Joan had given me the greatest gift of my life and I had ignored her completely and allowed myself to become surrounded by those who had never even seen me before I was someone to be seen. She was right to chastise me. This gift had cost me my generosity. I had become a taker and it was time to give again.

Even with the free time granted by the gifts of grades and papers, the desk had taken three straight weeks of labor. It was the most beautiful gift I had ever made: compact, lightweight, strong, with discrete cabinets and a beautiful blend of colors. Its manufacture had attracted more than a little attention and there was a small crowd gathered around me to see who was lucky enough to receive it.

I waved Joan over as she exited the tech. Her mess of tight curls shrouded her face, and I could hear the onlookers whisper “taker” as she came up to me.

“Joan, I would like to give you this desk. I can think of no one more worthy of it. You have given me many gifts over the years that I could never repay. Your gifts to this community, including your tireless work at Three Oaks, are far too often overlooked. I hope this desk can help you in your studies and that it properly conveys my gratitude.”

I had practiced the speech the night before. It was the same as what I had written in the official gift registry. The words were important. The gift wasn’t just the desk itself, though it was no small thing, the real gift was my acknowledgment of her. My status gave those words serious weight. With one gift, I would hitch her to my rising star.

The tiny crowd froze behind me. They were as eager for Joan’s response as I was. They were eager for her gratitude, eager to acknowledge her as someone worthy of such a spectacular gift.

But Joan didn’t embrace me. She didn’t cry tears of joy and clap her hands. She simply looked at the desk and said, “I don’t need a desk,” then walked past me and my tiny crowd. Over her shoulder, she shouted, “Give it to one of your pretty new friends.”

The onlookers and I froze, then their snickering filled my ears as the crowd petered out behind me. Cold tentacles of fear crawled up my back. No one refused a gift like this, whether they needed a desk or not. The real gift was far more than mahogany and brass hinges, it was my presence, acknowledgment, and friendship. She had turned all of these down without a second thought.

I had been wrong. Joan didn’t want me to give again, to reciprocate to her and others as was right. That visit on the hill hadn’t been a reprimand of my greed, but a reminder of what I owed. She alone had given me my new life and she alone knew it didn’t belong to me. I owed Joan a massive debt, and she would decide when it was paid.

Money is not something I’m used to dealing with. My food, my home, and the things that fill it are all gifts. Gifts given by people that knew I would give everything I could back in return. A family like mine has little use for ravs; we are generous enough to need only the generosity of others. So, it was beyond strange to be holding twenty ravs in my hand and even stranger to slip them through the slats of Joan’s Tech locker. I’d sold the desk and half the gifts I’d received in the last few months to get the money, including an ornate candleholder Billy had carved himself and a crystal beaded necklace made by Eliza-Beth. I received strange looks when I sold these precious gifts for cash, but I’d had no choice. Joan had refused my gift and all that came with it. Joan was not simply content to let me live the life she had given me. She had shown me that much. She had no interest in sharing in the light of my generosity, but money was another story. Money could buy all the food, clothing, and comforts her family only received when the Bone was full or when Joan’s labors at Three Oaks elicited some token of generosity. They would still be takers, but fed takers, comfortable takers.

The coins rattled as they fell into Joan’s locker, and they rattled even louder when they spilled out of mine later that day. Heavy, loud, obnoxious things. Twenty ravs, enough money to buy her family food for a year and she had given them back like they were nothing. There was no note with my ravs returned to me. The only response was the money itself — a clear message that Joan would rather she and her family suffer than take anything from me. Even this small fortune couldn’t buy me out of her debt.

Joan was attacking the floor with her mop when I arrived. She had already cleared the equipment, swept the entire facility, and begun mopping while sunlight still poured through the windows. I joined her from across the room, trying to match her pace. She didn’t acknowledge me. After only five minutes with the thwack and splash of our mops to occupy my attention, my mind began to ache. I threw my mop down with a huff.

“What do you want?” I whimpered. “What do you want from me, Joan?”

She leaned her mop gently in the bucket and smiled. An ugly grin, all teeth. “Want from you? Surely the generous Ev would not be so base as to offer an exchange. If you offer a gift freely, I’m sure I will accept it freely.”

“You didn’t take the desk.”

“I have no need for a desk.”

“It was a gift.

“One I had no need for.”

“You didn’t take the ravs,” I said.

She sneered. “The twenty ravs tossed in my locker without even a note? The twenty ravs you no doubt earned off of Taye’s labor? I don’t want your money, Ev.”

“Then what do you want, Joan? If you don’t want gifts or credit or money, what do you want from me?”

“I want to finish cleaning, Ev. It takes twice as long without you here.”

I looked down at my hands. Without my regular labor, they had lost all their long-held calluses and were aching already.

“Joan, you spread the rumors. You gave me the gift,” I said.

Joan nodded. “And you took it. You took from Taye, desperate and greedy, just like all your pathetic lookers would have done. And now you call me taker behind my back.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but I couldn’t force out the lie. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Did you know Taye doesn’t care that you took the credit from him? I told him what we did. I apologized for stealing his credit and having you waste it on your lookers and trinkets, but he says he doesn’t need it. He says that as long as he has enough to survive, he’s happy. We trade lunches now most days. He even labors with me here sometimes, not that anyone notices.”

My heart fluttered. If she had told Taye, she might tell anyone. She could crush me with a few well-placed words. “I didn’t take the credit,” I muttered.

Joan smiled. “But you did, Ev. And you didn’t do anything with it. You weren’t generous, you weren’t kind, you didn’t fight for anyone, you just left. You became one of them, whose every breath and whimper is a gift, and you laugh at us who labor every day for your scraps. And you never came back.”

My eyes filled and my throat became tight and scratchy. It wasn’t true. I had tried to give. I had tried to be generous. “I gave you a gift in return,” I said.

“The gift of joining your sycophantic circle of lookers. The gift of laughing at my parents and Taye and anyone else you choose to look down on. Keep your gifts, Ev. Keep your life. You earned it.”

I begged her to leave me be. I begged her not to destroy me, not to take what she had given me, but she just laughed and shook her head. Eventually, she turned and mopped her way out into the hallway. I followed her, but she wouldn’t even look at me. After a few minutes, I dumped out my bucket and left.

This time it was harder. My stock was still high, but my renown wasn’t what it had once been. I sold all the gifts I’d acquired and begun laboring in a heavy-manufacturing plant. The looks to and from work stung, but I knew they were worth it. I needed the money and the labor it took to earn it. The gift from Joan had turned out to be no gift at all. It was a yoke, one that tied me to her crime for as long as I wore it. She was a credit thief. She had taken the credit that was rightfully Taye’s and given it to me. I had accepted it without question and become the greatest taker the Tech had ever seen. And Joan knew it. She wouldn’t take my gifts; she wouldn’t accept my friendship. But she wasn’t gone, either. She stayed on the edge of my life, threatening it with every breath she took. If I couldn’t convince her to join in the spoils of what we had taken from Taye, to mire herself as I had done, I would have to give what I had taken. I would force her to become a taker as she had forced me.

The news made the Tech even wilder this time. Sixty. Sixty ravs to the Bone and they were alive with the buzz of it. The work that must have taken. The respect hidden within. And before the end of the day, everyone knew who had done it: two quiet takers named Taye and Joan.

I was relieved. Tired and relieved. My own stock had fallen far after news of me working for wages had gotten out. Further than I ever expected it could, and I now stood little better than I had before all this began, but I had repaid the gift in kind. I had done the work and given back what I owed. And now Taye would receive the credit he truly deserved, and Joan would receive credit for a gift she hadn’t given. She would become a taker, same as I had been, and I would be free. This was a gift she could never refuse, not without harming Taye, who had done nothing but give.

I had been freed from her debt, and the relief settled over me and flushed the shame from my core. I had given much of myself, not only my labor, but the credit, gifts, and status I had always wanted. And now I was a taker no longer. I was excited to see no one waiting for me as I exited my classes. I was relieved at the prospect of cleaning Three Oaks tonight. Everything was as it should be.

I found Billy and Eliza-Beth standing in front of my locker at fifth bell. They, like all the other lookers, hadn’t spoken to me for months. Today they came up to me fawning, delicate, and smelling of roses.

“We heard what you did,” one of them said. Then all of them said it, one by one. All the lookers. Then all the instructors. Then everyone else. Joan had set the record straight. She had told them about all the money I’d given and how I had tried to give her and Taye credit. They surrounded me at the steps of the Tech. Thousands of them. I could even see my parents in the crowd. A hundred ravs to the Bone in under a year. An enormous sum given to those few dared give to, and I hadn’t even kept the credit. I had thrown it away like it was nothing, to two people who could hardly have deserved it. I was more than a giver. I was a legend reborn. I was fantastic. I was nothing they’d ever seen before.

Joan stood at the edge of the crowd. She wore a huge smile. Twice now, she had openly refused my generous gift freely given. She was an ingrate of the highest order and an ungrateful taker at that. She had taken on a status so low she could never crawl out from under it. She had accepted a life of pity and the Bone rather than take a gift she didn’t want, and she smiled as if it were the greatest day of her life. I stared at her while the crowd pawed at me. I saw now that my gifts had never been meant for her. I had only ever tried to free my conscience and secure the life I always wanted. And by refusing them, she had let me. She had shown me who I wanted to be and let me become it. I was fantastic now and forever. I was a taker, now and forever.

I saw Taye join Joan at the edge of the crowd. They smiled at each other, then they smiled at me. The crowd surged forward to surround me and I lost sight of them.

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