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Forty-One Cents

Mary Jane stood outside the corner convenience store watching the people walk in and out of the automatic sliding doors, too interested in their dull lives to give her even a glance.
She put her hands in her pockets and felt cool medal on her fingertips. She had some change. She brought it out and looked down at the treasures—a dime, a nickel, a penny, and a quarter—forty-one cents. Most people, like the ones that walked in and out of the convenience store, would probably just pick out the quarter to save for later and throw the rest in a jar for a rainy day. But to her, forty-one cents was the perfect amount, and she needed every coin.
She sat cross-legged on the warm sidewalk. It was a beautiful June day and the sun was beating down. The concrete sidewalk absorbed its heat, and her legs absorbed the heat from the sidewalk. The heat burned, but she wasn't bothered by it.
She held the medal coins tight in her left hand.
To her right she heard a girl scream, Kill it Robby, kill it!
The girl screaming was in a bright red tank top, jean shorts, and bright red stilettos. On her arm was a decently-sized black spider. Mary Jane guessed it was probably Robby standing next to her in his less show-offy dress—baggy jean shorts and a white T-shirt. He didn't seem to mind the spider. In fact, Mary Jane saw a subtle hint of a smile on his face as he watched the girl squirm and scream. The girl let out one last final scream—one that pierced right through Mary Jane and Robby’s eardrums. And with his ears ringing, Robby plucked the spider off the girl’s arm and threw it on the concrete pavement.
The impact must have broken the spider’s back legs, because it couldn’t seem to move. It tried though. Struggling to get away from Robby, it used any ounce of strength it held in its front legs to find safety. But it was only a little spider, and Robby was human. He lifted his foot and crushed the spider.
Robby and the girl walked passed Mary Jane and into the convenient store.
Mary Jane stood up. She walked through the automatic-sliding doors and into the store behind them.
But Mary Jane wasn't going to the snack aisle with Robby and the girl.
She walked up to the cashier and read his nametag…Andrew. He was young and blond. This was probably his first job, who else but an inexperienced kid would work at a crappy convenience store for minimum wage? She guessed that in about a year he’d trade in his petty paychecks and light blue collared shirt for a dark blue Best Buy one and a dollar twenty-five more an hour.
She asked Andrew for a pack of matches. They cost a dime, a nickel, a penny, and a quarter—forty-one cents. She gave him her coins, he gave her the matches. She thanked him by his name and walked out of the store.
Forty-one cents bought a pack of matches. But Mary Jane only needed one.
One strike, one flame, and one stretch of two fingers left Mary Jane watching that goddamn tree burn.
The tree her and her sister used to climb as kids. The tree they played under, read under, the tree where her sister fell—the tree where her sister died. The tree she brought flowers to every Sunday. The tree she prayed under; sang under; cried under.
The tree was where she went when she needed time; the tree was timeless.
She held out her left arm to catch an ember. Her sleeve caught easy, it was only thin cotton. And then the pain began. She screamed as she felt the sleeve melt onto her skin; it felt as though the flames were layering dry ice onto her bare arm. She watched as the skin peeled off the muscle, and the muscle peeled off the bone—all turning black from the frostbite. She fell to the ground and thrashed—she wanted the ice off her skin, she tried putting it out on the grass, but the grass had already caught fire from the tree. The flames only grew higher and colder.
The icy pain crawled up her shoulder and down her white dress—like millions of fire ants biting into her skin, leaving small holes the ice would fill. And she screamed. Her face, her thighs, they all turned to agonizing ice disguised as flames.
And then it stopped. The pain went away—she stopped screaming and closed her eyes.
She was underneath the tree with her sister, lying on the cool grass. She was eight, her sister fifteen.
Dad was drunk again. And mom went to the bakery for bread two days ago. So they came to valley and the tree to catch some fresh air and much needed time. She heard her sister’s voice, letting the words pass through her lips in simple streams of silk and water, “Humans justify selfishness with morality Mary Jane—they’re evil.” Mary Jane wasn't surprised at her sister’s remark—she often had random rants about people. She never called them people though—always humans.
“What do you mean?”
Her sister sighed, “It’s like this, you’re walking in the park and you see a bird with a wounded wing. It can’t fly or eat, and it’s probably going to die soon. What do you do?”
“That’s easy,” Mary Jane smiled, “I’d take it home and nurse it back to health.”
“Exactly. You’re young, innocent; you’re a victim of humans. And because of that innocence you still hold gallantry and compassion for other victims like you. But now let’s say you’re all grown up, you’re human. You see a wounded bird—it’s innocent, alone, and cannot protect itself. And you claim the act of mercy with murder. But really, you killed it because you’re God. You killed it because you could. You killed it because you wanted to.”
Her sister’s voice faded. Mary Jane’s eyes had frozen over; she could no longer open them.
Forty-one cents that she found in her jeans pocket this morning. Forty-one cents was all it took.



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