The cigarette package was empty.
It was hot in the back room of the store. Ricki took off his cap and wiped his wet forehead before placing the cap carefully back on his head. He ran his hand across the familiar boxes of car parts, oil, and transmission fluid.
Manuel was barely visible as he turned the tumblers of the safe.
“All right!” Carlos cried out. The last click had found its mark, and the shiny black safe swung open.
Inside the safe stood rows of paper money, neatly stacked and banded together. The three boys pulled out the pillowcases they had brought with them and loaded the money into the bags. They were careful not to drop any on the floor.
After emptying the safe they clambered up the stairs and out the back of the store. They were down the street before the store alarm pierced the night.
It would be awhile before the police came. They always came too late in this neighborhood.
Ricki and his friends burst through the door into Manuel’s empty apartment. His mother worked a night shift at a restaurant every other night.
They dumped the contents of the pillowcases onto the floor and stared at the money.
“That’s a lot of green,” Carlos remarked to his two friends.
Manuel rubbed his face, and his eyes gleamed at the thought of their success. He ran his hands through the piles of money. Outside, sirens screamed.
Ricki felt sick. He rushed into the gray bathroom in the hallway.
“I don’t know about this, guys,” he told them when he emerged. The two boys stared at him.
“You don’t like being rich, man?” Carlos questioned.
“Yeah, but this was other people’s money. My mom’s paycheck is probably in there, and Aunt
Theresa’s. You know, the whole neighborhood buys stuff there.”
“You’re just feeling guilty because of your friend Maria and going to that church,” Carlos told him.
Ricki also felt bad because the store they had just robbed belonged to Mr. Dan. Mr. Dan was a friend.
Months earlier Mr. Dan had approached Ricki in his store. He’d noticed Ricki hanging out there day after day.
“Ricki, would you like a job?” Mr. Dan had asked. “Beats just hanging out. I need someone to help out here. How about it?”
Ricki had started to work in the store after school. He made a little money, but, best of all, it kept him off the street and away from the gangs.
After awhile Mr. Dan had asked him, “Would you like to come to church with us, Ricki?”
Ricki liked Mr. Dan and hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. Plus he had been curious to visit the church down on the corner. Sometimes he could hear loud music through the open windows, and the preacher looked pretty cool.
Ricki had fingered the watch around his neck as he thought about how to answer Mr. Dan. Ricki’s dad had given him that watch. He wore it every day. He hadn’t seen his dad in a long time. The watch helped Ricki to remember he had a dad.
“OK, Mr. Dan, I’m your man,” Ricki had said, smiling.
Ricki began to visit the church and even made some friends there.
Now Ricki felt sick in his heart about robbing Mr. Dan’s store. Mr. Dan was a good guy. It didn’t seem right.
Mr. Dan had trusted him. He had even told Ricki the combination to the safe.
“Ricki, put this money in the safe, will you? Here’s the combination.” Mr. Dan had handed Ricki a piece of paper with numbers written on it.
Ricki remembered the first robbery he had committed, a year ago. He hadn’t wanted to do it.
“You want to be one of us, you gotta do the job,” Carlos had told him, pushing him backward into some trash cans behind the pool hall.
Ricki had pulled a knife on a frightened convenience store clerk, who quickly emptied a cash register. The clerk, in a brazen move, had pushed an alarm for the local police. Ricki had heard the police sirens in the distance. The clerk had stared at Ricki, his fear a mask across his face. He had ducked behind the glass counter, begging Ricki not to hurt him.
Ricki had run down the street that day, the bag loaded with coins and bills clutched in his left hand, while his right hand still held the knife. The coins had jingled against each other in the bag. Once, Ricki had dropped his prize on the dirty sidewalk. Panic-stricken, he had picked it up and run faster, convinced that he was about to go to jail.
So far he hadn’t gone to jail. But after the robbery at Mr. Dan’s store, Ricki moved about the neighborhood with a heavy heart. He felt the weight of guilt and sadness as he walked the streets and passed longtime neighbors. The neighborhood where Ricki and his friends lived kept its secrets. If one son was in trouble, everyone carried the burden.
Day after day Ricki struggled with what he had done.
“Have some of this, Rick,” Antoine said, thrusting a smoke at Ricki. “It’ll make you feel better.”
Ricki took a long drag and then threw it in the trash. He didn’t feel any better.
That week every time Ricki heard a siren or saw a police car, he was afraid. When his neighbors complained about the robbery, Ricki walked away.
He couldn’t even see his friend Maria anymore.
“Tell me again, man, how is this supposed to make me happy?” he asked Carlos.
“What’s wrong with you, son?” Ricki’s mother asked him one night. “Hustle now, we got to get to church.”
Ricki didn’t want to go to church. He just wanted to lie in bed. He pulled his covers up higher over his head.
School was no better. There was a lot of blinking and nodding, with secrets hanging in the air.
Ricki felt dirty.
Late one day Ricki walked over to the church.
Pastor Rob was a great guy. He wore jeans, shaved his head, and didn’t lecture anybody.
“I’ve done something real bad,” he told Pastor Rob.
The pastor waited. He watched as Ricki played with his cap.
Pastor Rob waited some more in the dead silence.
Just then Maria walked into Pastor Rob’s office. Maria volunteered to help out in the office twice a week. The church couldn’t afford a full-time secretary, so the kids in the youth group handled different duties, such as taking phone messages or filing.
“I’m ashamed to tell you,” Ricki began.
Maria put down her phone messages.
“Ricki,” she told him, “God loves you. He wants to forgive you. If you’ve done something wrong, you need to trust Jesus with your heart. He’ll understand and forgive you.”
Ricki began to cry.
He reached around his neck for the chain that held his dad’s watch.
It was gone!
Then Ricki heard the sirens. This time the police were coming for him.
That night Mr. Dan visited Ricki at the police station.
“You dropped the watch by the safe during the robbery, Ricki. I’m not mad at you for the robbery, but I feel betrayed.”
Mr. Dan stood up and walked around the table. He put his arm around Ricki’s shoulders as the young man once again began to cry.
“I forgive you, Ricki. Jesus forgives me for my sins, so I’m able to forgive you. Maybe you should give Jesus a chance to control your life.”
Ricki bowed his head, and in the midst of a gloomy gray room he asked Jesus to take control of his life.
The next few months were hard for Ricki. Juvenile hall was noisy, and the first night was scary. His mom cried when she came to visit with him. Ricki tried to tell the other kids about Jesus, and how they would feel better once they trusted Him.
Not everyone wanted to listen. Still, Ricki knew God was working in his life. Forgiveness felt clean.