The Five-Dollar Bill

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
July/August 2015

“Stop Tiger from chasing Fluffy!” Mike Brady yelled as he charged headlong at his sons’ dog at his wedding reception. Tiger dashed under the wedding cake table and tipped it. The three-tiered cake slid along the table and into Mike’s arms. When Carol Brady hugged him for saving the cake, it toppled onto Mike’s face.

This scene on TV sent my brother and me rolling on the carpet in fits of laughter. Ben and I relied on The Brady Bunch reruns to release frustration. We watched them every afternoon, since we spent our taxing schooldays proving to the mostly  white student body that we were not mentally retarded, we just couldn’t speak English. After all, we came to the U.S. three months ago, knowing only how to say “hi.” I wanted to return to Taiwan, where I lived a Brady-Bunch life—wholesome and carefree, where each day ended with everyone happy.

Mom yelled from the kitchen, “哥哥, 去市場 買一袋紅蘿蔔. 現 在就去!”1. She ordered Ben to buy a bag of carrots from the market, this instant.

“我不要! 叫妹妹去,”2. Ben shouted back, refusing to budge and offering me a chance to go.

Mom marched into the family room and stood in front of the TV screen, hands on hips, and commanded, “現在就去,”3 repeating her order.

The Five-Dollar Bill running on the street

With the agility of a panther, he rounded the corner of the supermarket

Ben rolled onto his stomach, crossed his arms overhead, plopped his forehead onto his forearms, and groaned. She turned around and switched off the TV. Mom was always pressed for time.

She no longer had help from her family and friends to make dinner and run errands. I wanted to help her, so I volunteered.

She hesitated. She had always relied on Ben to run errands. Would she trust me to go alone for the first time? Like Cindy Brady begging to have her way, I clasped my hands, looked earnestly into Mom’s eyes, and in my sweet seven-year-old voice, pleaded with her to let me go. “媽 媽, 讓我去. 就在街頭.”4

Mom glanced at the wall clock, which read five o’clock. “Go quickly. I need it to finish the dish before Dad comes home.”

She folded a five-dollar bill widthwise twice and handed it to me as I left the house. I clutched the bill in my right hand and skipped, half running, down to the store, humming the opening tune of The Brady Bunch.

When I reached the market, my pace slowed. A brilliant sunset was in clear view from the near-vacant parking lot. It looked as if someone had spread rainbow sherbet across the sky with white cotton candy as clouds. I thought of the countless sunsets I had savored with my grandma from the balcony of our house. I reached over to hold her hand, but she wasn’t there. Where was she? Where were my friends, and my extended family?

A kind voice jarred me from my thoughts. “Hi.” It came from a slim, tall, athletic boy in tennis shoes and blue jeans, about Ben’s age. I had never seen him before, but that was true of most Americans I had met. We exchanged warm, friendly smiles.

The boy enunciated each word slowly, asking, “You go to Condit Elementary? You know, Condit Elementary School.”

I stared in astonishment. Yes, yes, that was where I went to school! My mind raced with excitement at the prospect of making a friend. I thought hard, trying to express myself in proper English. “I go schoo Condid.”

The boy stifled a giggle. My ears burned, my toes curled, and my fists tightened. My palms began sweating, and the five-dollar bill felt like a damp paper towel. I switched the bill to my left hand, letting the breeze cool my right one. I expected him to leave, since I couldn’t carry on a conversation with him. He stayed.

Again, slowly and patiently, he said, “I’ve seen you at school.”

He has seen me at school? Maybe he has seen me with Ben. “You know my broder, Be-en? He in fif grade.”

His eyes lit up and he grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Yeah, yeah, we’re in the same class. I know him real good. We’re like this.” He raised his right hand, pressing together his index and middle fingers. “You’re his little sister.”

I was comforted in knowing he was my brother’s friend. My ears stopped burning, my toes straightened, and my fists relaxed. My left hand loosely held the five-dollar bill. I couldn’t wait to tell Ben about this. Maybe we could invite the boy over to our house. Maybe we’d bike around the neighborhood or watch TV or play in the backyard or do anything he wants to. Should I ask now?

Before I could decide, the boy lunged at me, snatched the bill, and sprang into flight.

For a second, I hesitated. What happened? Was this a prank? I stared at the air in front of me in shock and opened my mouth to yell for help, but nothing came out. My body felt numb and cold, as if all blood was channeled to my thrashing heart. From the corner of my eyes, I saw him getting further away from me. I thought only of catching him.

I flung myself into the chase. My eyes tracked his every move. With the agility of a panther, he rounded the corner of the supermarket. I followed. We were now in an empty stretch of the parking lot, with only a few parking lot islands with waist height hedges. My soles ripped the asphalt. I was gaining on him. After all my years of chasing Ben, I knew I could catch this boy. He glanced back and then picked up speed. He smashed through a gap in the hedges. I followed. The thorns scratched my bare shins, breaking my stride. My right foot caught on the edge of the curb, and I stumbled and fell to the ground.

I didn’t check for injuries. I couldn’t. I pushed myself upright and raced after him with all the power I had, but with my right ankle throbbing, I could only watch his figure shrink in the distance. I lost my chance to catch him, and with it, my chance to prove that I was as able as my brother.

From behind me, a man in a track suit and sneakers burst past me, running towards the boy. The boy looked over his shoulders, thrust the crumpled bill on the ground, turned the corner, and dashed past the dumpsters in the back of the supermarket. He just ran, ran, ran, and I never saw him again.

I stopped. I staggered, coughing, and choking for breath as I watched the man pick up the bill and walk to me. As he approached, I recognized him as Mr. C., my PE teacher from school. I was safe. We walked to the nearest concrete wheel stop and sat down.

The Five-Dollar Bill counting the money

“Are you all right?” Mr. C. asked.

The pounding in my ears drowned out the rest of his words. “… here by yourself… don’t worry… your money…”

I leaned into my legs, lowered my head, and felt small streams of tears escape my eyes. I didn’t want to cry because I didn’t want the boy to have the satisfaction of getting to me. I was angry. Angry at the boy for violating my trust. Angry at my mother for sending a seven-year-old to the market alone. Angry at myself for wearing this silly skirt and not being a faster runner. I felt like a hot tea kettle on a stove and my anger was steam. When all the water evaporated, I felt empty. Empty because the boy had stolen my faith in the honesty of people.

*          *          *

My fist tightened on the money, sliding it back and forth to hide it from sight. I had better be more alert in case someone else tries to take my money. No more looking at sunsets or any other distractions. My head jerked up and my eyes darted from left to right. I waited for my legs to stop shaking, waited for the moment when I could run, run for home where I’d be safe.

A hand touched my right shoulder and I lurched away from it. It was Mr. C. “It’s OK, I’m here. He was a bad boy, but not everyone is bad.” I furrowed my brow and groped for memories of people who were good to me. Yesterday? Last week? Last month? The ESL teacher? She baked me a cake on my birthday. The lunch lady? She slipped me a carton of chocolate milk. My grandma? She was kind to everyone, though she had a broken hip from bound feet and had to support her family during a war. She made my life in Taiwan wholesome and carefree.

Grandma didn’t have to. Neither did the lunch lady or the ESL teacher or Mr. C. They had a choice between being good or bad, and they chose to be good, to selflessly improve others’ lives. Some people chose to be bad, like the boy and my classmates. They chose to cause problems for those around them. I wanted to be good. Today, that meant finishing what I came for.

I turned to Mr. C., grinned, and declared, “I go buy carrots. Go home fast.” I jerked up, folded the bill so it fit undetected in my fist, and walked resolutely towards the market. I walked faster and faster, putting the incident behind me and rushing towards the happy days of my own creation.

Footnotes

1. “Ben, go to the market and buy a bag of carrots. Now!”
2. “No! Make Amy go.”
3. “Go now.”
4. “Mom, can I please go? It’s just at the end of the street.”

The Five-Dollar Bill Katherine Tung

Katherine Tung, 11
Los Altos, California

The Five-Dollar Bill Aris Demopoulos

Aris Demopoulos, 12
Los Angeles, California

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