Part One: The Lock
"Your task is simple," said Monsieur as he handed me the burlap sack. "Five hours before the city begins to awake. Get as many as you can." The mouth under the black, bushy moustache twisted, making his next words much more ominous. "I have no doubt you will complete this mission spectacularly, Amélie."
"Five hours," I said, tugging on a strand of my matted hair. "How many do you want?"
"Let's say… Cent. One hundred." Monsieur rocked back on his heels, peering down at me from behind his old glasses. The color had nearly faded from his pants, and his shoes were getting worn again. "We will be paid a hefty sum for this, Amélie. Therefore it is imperative that you get enough."
"I know," I said. "Can I visit the pâtisserie afterwards?"
Monsieur ruffled my hair roughly, nearly tearing the follicles out from my scalp. "As long as you get those locks, Amélie, anything is possible."
The moon was hanging bright white and round over the city as I darted in the shadows, avoiding the lamps that would cast my skinny form into light. Most things were closed down, including the Métro and the lights that made the city so eternally romantic, so there was little chance I would be caught.
The Pont des Arts was peaceful when I arrived. The only sounds present were the sweet rush of the Seine and, of course, the clink of the locks.
There were millions of locks hooked onto the bridge, metal objects that could never be removed because their owners had thrown the keys into the river. Today had been the day of Saint Valentin, so the bridge was especially groany and creaky, weighed down by the love of googly-eyed tourists who somehow believed a rusty contraption and Paris would be enough to seal their love.
I stopped reflecting and got to work. My first lock was an ordinary Master Lock, already faded from a bright green to a pukey yellow. I plucked a bobby pin out from my hair and stuck it in.
Another thing about googly-eyed tourists: they didn't exactly pick the best security for their love.
In a couple seconds, the lock clicked and dropped into my hand. One down, ninety-nine more to go.
Saint Valentin had always been a prosperous holiday, especially for the inhabitants of the City of Love, Lights, and whatever else had been attached to the name. Monsieur and I had made an occupation out of it, selling locks that we bragged had been dipped in the waters of Venice or blessed by Romeo and Juliet. After Saint Valentin, we always had enough money to eat macarons and baguettes for weeks.
This year was different. Some man had approached Monsieur and offered him a formidable amount of euros in exchange for enough locks from the Bridge of Amour. Monsieur had said the man was an artist and that the locks would go towards some type of aesthetic masterpiece, but I could care less as long as I had food to eat and a warm place to sleep that hopefully faced away from the Tour Eiffel. That was why I stayed with Monsieur; he was a drunk monster of a man whose true name I didn't even know, but he gave me a place to stay and kept me alive.
So here I was, picking locks at the dead of night like a common thief instead of relaxing with my love—not that I had one—and watching the silty waters of the Seine pass by.
It wasn't too bad a job, though there were some bad things attached to it, such as a discouraging sense of pessimism. After a lifetime tolerating the flash of cameras and the tourists who would line up around courtyards and buildings in order to get into the Louvre, or the Arc de Triomphe, I was annoyed with humanity. Especially the tourists who would take pictures of me and Monsieur, like oh, Parisians! How precious.
And they wondered why Parisians were so rude. Anybody would be rude after being goggled at, like Paris was a giant zoo full of escargot and espresso-loving animals.
I got into the rhythm of the locks. Stab the pin, twist, click, stash into the bag. Stab, twist, click, stash. Stab, twist, click, stash. Stab, twist, click, splash.
I frowned as I stretched out my sore fingers. That wasn't right. I looked over the bridge, but everything seemed as peaceful as ever, so I returned to my job.
The next lock I went to work on, I could barely believe.
After twisting and twisting without hearing the click, I examined it and realized through the darkness that it was gold.
Pure gold? I closed my teeth around it and bit down. Ouch. Definitely pure gold.
Dieu, a lock made of pure gold. Some of these suckers really had money to spend. If I kept this one and sold it off to someone who could melt it down, I wouldn't even need part of the profits that Monsieur would get from selling to the artist man.
I jiggled my pin again now, desperate to get the lock down. On the bottom, I could barely make out the words Marcus and Jeanine, written in fancy cursive. Here was someone who'd guarded his love carefully with pure gold and mechanics that didn't give easily. It was cliché, but it would make a magnificent profit.
Finally, I must have done something right, because the lock fell into my grimy palm. I stared at it a moment before stashing it into the left pocket of my torn pants and continuing to the next lock.
Just as I was putting claim on an ugly purple padlock, I heard an unmistakable grunt emitted from below the bridge.
Carefully, I put the lock in the bag, making sure that it didn't clink too loudly against the others. I was at about fifty now, but the sun would be rising soon. Still, I didn't want to be caught, especially if there was some clumsy tourist down there who would report me to the police.
I made my way below the bridge and saw a dark figure wading through the water. It was bending over, an arm plunged into the dirty current of the Seine. It picked up something, examined it, then tossed it farther upstream with a muffled curse. The figure moved farther down the river, but it stumbled and fell again with a loud splash.
"Shit!" it hissed as it struggled to its feet again. The voice was definitely masculine.
I moved out from my position, and upon seeing me, he plopped into the water again.
"Who are you?" he exclaimed. His hair was dark and had obviously taken multiple soakings, since it was plastered to his forehead. His white button-up shirt clung to a nicely muscled body, and he was much taller than me. Judging by the accent and the obnoxious tan, he was American. Of course. They were always the dumbest ones. All the money making up for the lack of brains.
I shrugged, deciding that this would be a laugh. "Personne."
"Bien." He coughed, and I thought he'd understood me when I said nobody. "Bonjour. I—I mean—"
I leaned against the side of the bridge, watching him stutter. The gold lock was a pleasant weight in my pocket. "God, this is hard," he said. "Uh. Pa—parlez-vous… parlez-vous anglais?" His French was so terrible that I could barely understand it.
"I thought you'd never ask," I said. My English was heavily accented; I'd never gotten much of an education, being that I'd been an orphan from the day I was born. Monsieur had certainly never cared. He just gave me a share of profit for me to use the way I saw fit.
"Bitch," the boy bit out.
My hand went to my hip, though I probably didn't look that intimidating, being much tinier than him and also because my clothes were so baggy that it just looked like I'd sprouted an extra arm. "Excusez-moi?"
"Why didn't you say so earlier?"
"So I could watch you make a fool of yourself," I answered bluntly.
"Exactly. Bitch." He exhaled. "But you're right. I'm a fool. Such a stupid, fucking fool." He sat down again in the water.
"I would not do that if I were you. They say you will get, ah, tétanos."
"Tétanos. I think Americans call it tet—tet something. It is when the rust gets into your system."
"Tetanus?" he asked.
I nodded, pronouncing my words the way I hoped they should be pronounced. My English was probably just as difficult to understand as his French. "That is it."
"Shit! Tetanus!" He jumped up and hopped out of the river.
I didn't know whether to shake my head or laugh, so I did both.
He looked bewildered a moment, his dark hair flopping into his eyes. "What?"
I tried to muffle my laughter with my hand. The bag I was holding made a clanking noise, drawing the boy's attention.
"What's that?" he asked.
I wasn't about to tell him that I'd been stealing locks from a prime sightseeing location, so I tried to divert his attention instead. "Why are you here?"
He coughed again. "I, um… I was doing some late-night thinking."
I raised my eyebrow. "You are American."
"Hey! We had great philosophers and scientists. We know how to think."
"All from Western thought," I said. "Your country is nowhere as old as mine, and so neither is your thinking."
"Okay, fine." He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shivered. Considering that it was February and he'd dunked himself in the Seine multiple times, I wasn't surprised. I felt bad, but it wasn't like I could offer him any help from the meager clothes that I already wore. I didn't even have socks.
"I was looking for a key," he said.
"For a lock."
I rolled my eyes. "Yes, I know what keys are for, and gathering rust on a riverbed is not part of their job. Hundreds are thrown into the Seine every year in some absurd declaration of love. But why are you willing to freeze yourself half to death for one?"
"I came to Paris with my dad, but I brought my girlfriend along because I hoped I could give her the whole shebang," he said. "It's the City of Love and all. But she broke up with me after Valentine's Day." He gazed mournfully over the river, in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. "And after I'd just given her a Ferrari, too."
"Stop," I said, holding out a hand. "She broke up with you right after you gave her a car?" When he nodded, I exhaled slowly, trying to keep calm. "You must be the stupidest American I have seen, and I have seen many." At his confused look, I continued. "She was sucking you dry, my friend."
"So… I shouldn't have gotten her a car?"
"No! Imbécile. You should not have dated her in the first place!" I groaned. "As romantic as you are, you should really pick better people for it."
"You think I'm romantic?" he asked, grinning. "That was exactly what I was going for."
"You are a failure and if your money was not your parents', you would end up sold into child slavery."
"That's a bit extreme, don't you think?"
"No, not really. I had a friend who—"
"Okay, okay. I'm not smart and I should learn how to manage my money better. I'm sorry. I just really loved Jeanine, and—"
I slapped a hand to my pocket automatically, and he stopped. "Jeanine?" I asked, keeping my voice placid.
"Yeah. It's weird to hear her name apart from mine," he said. "For so long, it was Jeanine and Marcus, not just… Jeanine."
Merde. He was the owner of the lock. Marcus. I wasn't surprised. Of course a lovelorn idiot like him would get a lock fashioned out of pure gold just for a girl who wanted nothing more than to roll in his money. How stupid could people get?
"And now you are looking for the key to… what? Unlock the lock?"
"Yeah. I don't think it's lucky for me to leave that lock up there. And my luck has been pretty shitty recently."
"I do not think luck has anything to do with it. It might be your own bad judgment."
He stared at me. "You're really good at making me feel better, you know?"
"Oh, oui. Because that is my purpose. To pat you on the back and say désolé. Life is not simple. You live on the streets awhile, and you know."
"The streets?" Marcus was looking at me differently, his head cocked to the side, and I knew he was beginning to make assumptions after what I'd let slip. "Are you homeless then?"
"In a way, I suppose."
"It doesn't matter though," Marcus announced.
He shrugged. "Who cares if you're rich or poor? You seem to have had a purpose tonight, just like I did. I bet mine is way more moronic, and look how much money I have. Money doesn't exactly breed brains."
"Unfortunately. Then I would be rich." When he didn't say anything, I supplied, "Because I am brilliant."
"Not brilliant enough to distract me from the question that you tried to avoid answering. Why are you here?"
"Work," I said. "I had a purpose, as you put it."
"Oh. Okay. Does that purpose have anything to do with what's in your pocket?"
"There is nothing in my pocket," I answered smoothly. "Absolutely nothing."
Even in the dimness, I saw him roll his eyes. "I may be an idiot when it comes to love, but not in reading signs. What's in your pocket?"
"Nothing that you need to concern yourself with, monsieur." I had to leave before he reported me to the authorities. Perhaps I could come back at a later time to gather the remaining fifty locks.
"Tell me what's in your pocket." His voice had adopted a superior tone, like he was used to having his orders followed. Well, I had no such compulsion.
"Make me, American." I swung myself back onto the bridge, though it was difficult with the locks weighing me down. I nearly fell down, but thankfully I made it.
"Hey, you dropped something!" I looked back just in time to see him pick up the gold lock and eye it. Realization washed over his face as he said in the voice of someone who had been betrayed, "You."
"Moi?" I smiled innocently, edging closer. I needed that lock. That lock was weeks of good food and drink. Maybe even some new clothes, if the fancy struck me.
"This cost me a lot to make. The key, too," he said, gaze still fixated on the tiny lock lying in his palm. "I can't believe it was all for nothing. I still got dumped on my ass."
"How sad," I said. Then, "Is the key pure gold too?"
He crossed his arms, and my eyes followed his hand as it tightened around the lock. "Are you going to dive into the Seine if I tell you it is?"
"You're nothing but a petty thief," he said.
"You are nothing but someone who uses his money to make up for his own shortcomings." I smiled genially. "We all have things that we are good at."
His mouth opened and closed, making his distinctively fish-like. Maybe the Seine was his habitat after all.
"I would like the lock," I said, holding out my hand.
"And what makes you think I'll give it to you?"
"Because you have no need for it any longer. Your amour has left you."
His eyes got all sad again, and I guessed I shouldn't have mentioned this Jeanine girl so soon after the fact.
"C'est la vie," I said. "That means—"
"That is life," he interrupted. "I know some French."
"You mean you know all the sayings that have been shown in movies, songs…"
He sighed. "It's true, though. Life sucks."
"It does not suck. Perhaps you just need to change your locks once in a while in the hopes that the right key will be easier to find."
He leaned against the support of the bridge, pensive as he looked up at me. "That was deep. Okay." Taking a deep breath, he gestured for me to approach him. "Come here."
"You said there isn't luck involved, and you said that I have to change my locks. I'm changing them tonight. I want you to kiss me."
Perhaps it was that I had never kissed a boy, or that I did not wish to get contaminated from the low IQ that persisted with so many Americans. Whatever it was, my reaction was sudden and furious. "No!" I exclaimed.
"I bet you've always wanted to kiss an American." His eyes were disturbingly serious. "You can tell all your friends."
I made a face. "You just want to tell your friends that you kissed a French girl. I bet you will leave the homeless part out. And I have no friends; nobody wishes to be friends with a homeless girl."
"You won't be homeless if you sell this lock." He waved the gold padlock in the air, and unwittingly, my eyes followed it. The way it shimmered under the moonlight…
I moaned, desire nearly overwhelming me. I wanted it so much. "Fine!"
The shadows moved languidly over the planes of Marcus's face as he smiled. He looked less like a lovesick idiot and more like someone who could do real damage to a girl.
"Are you not afraid you will get some sort of disease? For all you know, I kiss rats."
I shuddered. "No." Would it be so terrible to kiss Marcus? He was attractive, perhaps a little older but not so far apart from me in age, and wealthy. Obviously, he was so distraught over his loss that he was beginning to let the late night influence his sanity, but I had dealt with enough people who had been brainwashed by the unique Parisian aura that made wallets looser. All of the people who came here to buy five-dollar trinkets that could be made for ten cents apiece definitely were not operating at their intellectual capacity.
"Then it won't be a problem." He reached out and grasped me arm, tugging me closer. "Your kiss for my lock. A fair trade, vrai?"
"Just do it already," I demanded, hopping down from my position on the bridge to join him. "Also, your French is… how do you say it? Abominable."
"Your French accent is sexy," he murmured in my ear just before he planted his lips onto mine. Almost instantaneously, his hands were all over me, lifting up my greasy white shirt to smooth over my back, even though there were holes in the fabric that he could have used to his advantage. His teeth grazed my bottom lip.
The result of that was me leaning back so far that I fell into the freezing water of the Seine.
"What did I do?" exclaimed Marcus. "I did it right, didn't I?" He smirked. "You liked it, didn't you? Jeanine always said I was a spectacular kisser—"
"Why are you so self-centered?" I yelled at him. "Come and help a mademoiselle out of the water."
He had the audacity to look around and say, "What mademoiselle?"
I gave an affronted gasp and shifted. Something dug into my backside and I fished it out, uncovering a gold key with a handle leading to a heart.
"That's mine," Marcus said, the joking expression gone from his face.
I looked up from my examination of the key to say sardonically, "Yes, the words Marcus and Jeanine Forever were not enough of an indication. Your displays of love are disgusting."
"I'm not that ostentatious." He stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Am I?"
"I do not know what that word means."
"Er, disgusting. It means… disgusting."
"Then yes, you are. Why did you have to draw attention to my accent?"
"I called it sexy!"
"It was not needed." It was a bit strange to be called sexy by a male who had not yet lost his teeth and had his hair go gray. I obviously had not been exposed enough to members of my own kind, but young attractive males did not usually hang around the slums of Paris.
"Give my key back," Marcus said, distracting me from the fact that I would probably be the one sold into child slavery. My future was pretty bleak when one examined it.
"No," I said, standing up and pocketing it in my right pocket, the one without a hole at the bottom. I wasn't about to lose it like I'd lost the lock. "And now you can forget about the lock. This key is enough."
"You—" He plunged into the river after me, and I yelped and scrambled towards the bridge, hooking my arm under the beam that held it up and climbing up the side. Grabbing the bag of locks, I made for the other side of the bridge and hid in an alley of the 6th arrondissement until I heard his footsteps fade away. That was when I finally pressed my fingers to my lips.
Part Two: The Key
Monsieur had not been happy that he got half of what he had bargained for. What made it worse was that I had never failed him so badly before, mostly because I had been frightened of the consequences, which were exactly as bad as I had expected. I had not been allowed to eat for two days, and Monsieur had prevented me from leaving our residence, which meant I had not been able to barter Marcus's key for money. I was half grateful for that; the key represented a moment important to me, even if it had the name of another woman on it.
On the third day, Monsieur tossed me two euros, barely enough for a piece of plain bread.
"Loathsome child." He spat on the ground, narrowly missing my bare feet.
I had already made my decision by the time I'd bought a meager piece of bread and swallowed it whole. I couldn't go back to Monsieur. I would have to find a life elsewhere. I needed to trade in Marcus's key, yet I knew that I would be dismissed as trash if I stepped through any pawnbroker's door.
The bread had done nothing to the intense pain gnawing at my stomach. I stumbled through the streets, praying for a morsel left on the ground, looking through trashcans and now hoping that some tourist would be spoiled enough to throw food away.
Someone had tossed half a crepe into the waste, and I reached in gratefully, even though there were ants crawling up the spilled chocolate.
I turned, half-guilty, half-ashamed. My eyes widened when I saw the black-haired boy from two nights ago jogging up to me. Marcus.
I'd dismissed that night as something I would think upon nostalgically when things got difficult, not as something that wouldn't leave me alone and remind me of what I couldn't have.
"Did you just take something out of the trash can?" Marcus asked in horror.
"What does it matter to you?" I snapped. "You have never been hungry a day in your life."
"I'll buy you something," he said, still looking aghast. "Just please, please don't ever do that again."
He bought me a sandwich, and I ate it within a couple minutes. Then he bought me a crepe, which I demolished in even less time. Finally, he stuffed an entire bag of croissants into my hands.
"Let's see how long it takes you to get through that," he said triumphantly.
He seemed disappointed when I finished in less than an hour. We ended up walking along the Seine when he said, "You never told me your name."
I gulped down a bite of ice cream and said, "Amélie."
"Hmm." He nodded. "Pretty name for a pretty girl."
I swallowed the ice cream, pausing to shiver at the way the coldness spread through my body. "Mm."
"You seem a lot calmer," he noted.
"Because I am not hungry." I looked around and noticed that we were back on the bridge where we had first met and where he had given me a kiss after his obscene comment about my accent.
Marcus seemed to have realized it too. He reached out to rattle one of the locks clinging to the fence. "It does seem kind of ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"Not the most sensible thing for someone to do."
He laughed. "You remind me of my dad. Always logic before everything else."
"Yep. He sculpts. Actually, he recently had this brilliant idea to take a bunch of locks off of this bridge and melt down the brass in order to make geometric sculptures. He wanted to 'split romance into symmetrical pieces to represent the cold functionality that can always destroy love,' as he so eloquently put it. He was agitated for a while, though, since he didn't want to come here himself and risk getting caught. Bad publicity, you know—"
"He wanted to take locks off of this bridge?" I asked slowly.
"Yeah. Modern art. You might have seen a couple pieces of his. There are some in the MoMA in New York, but I'll never understand it."
"Modern art is fascinating," I murmured, barely listening anymore. Hadn't Monsieur spoken of an artist who had approached him and offered money for locks off of the Pont des Arts?
"Your father ruined my life," I declared.
Marcus seemed taken aback. "You haven't even met him!"
"I was stealing locks for him," I snapped. "If I was not stealing locks, I would not have met you, I would not have been distracted, and I would still have a home!"
"Wait… you're homeless now? Literally homeless?"
"Yes," I said, exasperated. "I am now, quite literally, a girl of the streets."
There was a silence, and then Marcus said, "I can't stop thinking about that night, you know."
I smacked my forehead. "I am having real, societal problems, and all you can talk about are your own feelings?"
"Now who's being dense? No." He closed his hand around mine and prodded my chin up so we were eye-to-eye. In the daylight, I could see his irises were a soft, comforting brown, fringed by long lashes. "My dad needs an apprentice to help him with sculpting. He thinks I'm too emotional and feeling for the job, but I have a feeling he'd love your cold evaluation of life and love."
"I just met you," I said, sliding my hand from his grasp. His offer sounded too good to be true, which was why I was on my guard.
He shrugged. "I'm helping my dad out. He's been looking for someone for a while. Also, we're staying in Paris for a while because he has an exhibition here, which is why we can't go employee-hunting in America. Trust me, you'd be perfect. He's getting tired of searching, so anyone with common sense would be good at this point."
"Even a homeless girl who speaks bad English and kisses sewer rats?"
"I hope you're joking about the sewer rats part."
"Yes," I said, "I will meet your father and see if he is willing to give me a job."
"Things will work out," Marcus said confidently. "There's always a key for every lock out there."
I smiled, beginning to imagine the possibilities. All because of an American boy who possibly might not have been too stupid after all. "Here," I said, holding out the key. "I do not think I need it anymore."
"Neither do I." He leaned in and kissed me softly, then raised my hand to his lips and kissed it. Then he kissed the key and threw it back into the river.
"Merde—I did not actually mean that!" That was the end to my attempts of being romantic. I made to follow the key's trajectory but got pulled back by my clothing.
That connard, at some moment during the kiss, had looped the lock through a hole in my shirt and into the links in the fence, locking it there.
"First order of business," he said, kissing me again and tugging on one of the holes before pivoting and walking away, "new clothes."
I shook my head, tearing the cloth free from around the lock and running after him, the melodious clanking of the Pont des Arts singing behind me, our key joined with the million other keys that past lovers had thrown into the river in the City of Lights and Annoying Tourists.
A/N: This was written for The Write Away's Cinderella Challenge.