"Let me tell you about this dollar's tale," Matt said, stretching out a dollar note before me.
We were sitting face to face in a coffee shop in the central hub of the city. He ordered hot chocolate while I ordered coffee. Nothing starts a day better than coffee—the repugnant bitterness that lapped on the tongue would wake anyone up.
"That old thing? Let me guess, did you pick it up off the street and bought a chocolate bar with a golden ticket in it?"
He smirked. "No, but it bought me one hell of a story."
As the steam rose from our cups, Matt started.
It was a dry summer's day when this bill was pumped into the economy. The first person, outside of a bank employee or clerk, to handle this dollar note was a drug addict called Carl.
Born destined to become a chess grandmaster, Carl found that he was more interested in acid than in checkmates, taking the meager tournament prize money to further expand his mind until it was a large net containing the whole universe. After a bad trip involving the sun pile-driving into the Earth, Carl returned to chess only to find that the drugs had torn the talent from his soul like a tsunami tears a child from her mother. He had no other skills, his education spent smoking weed in the PE closet.
So he returned to drugs, only this time they did not let him go.
Carl got the dollar bill while buying liquor from an off-license. The clerk handed over his change, wondering how a such a decrepit person could afford liters of vodka.
He used the dollar note to snort coke off his folding plastic table. When Carl first tried coke, his nose bled like he was punched. He did not bother cleaning up the blood because at that moment, he saw every molecule ever line up before him. These molecules were about the size of his fist yet he could see every single one out of the septillion that were before him. When he returned to the real world, he found his genitals floating in a puddle of his own piss.
This was his daily routine for two months: get drunk, get high, wake up soiling himself. One night, Carl overdosed and died alone in his apartment. The dollar bill was lying on the floor beside his cold hand, sitting there for weeks until one neighbor smelled the rot and called the cops.
After confirming that Carl died from an overdose, the banknote remained in the evidence locker for a few months until the police cleared it for another case. The note was handed in among other dollar bills back to the bank.
This is where the real story begins.
An armored van containing the bill plus thousands more was raided. Two people sat at the front while the other four sat in the back, swimming in their steals. Armored transport vans are not known for their mobility, so when the van was thrown from the highway during the chase, the criminals leaped from the van carrying as much loot as they could before splitting away.
All but one criminal was arrested. Jake fled with two bags in his possession, one of them containing this dollar bill. He ran into a nearby forest where the winter trees resembled hands reaching out from the Earth to catch the velvety sky. Jake kept glancing back to see if anyone was following him. Luckily, they were not, and a few hours later he emerged from the forest, free to spend his newfound wealth as he pleased.
When he returned to his apartment, Jake opened both bags. Both contained bonded notes ranging in value, but the overall catch was about ten thousand dollars. Jake pondered that night as he fell asleep what he would do with the money.
When he woke up the next morning, he knew the answer: move to a new country. Jake had no ties to where he lived at that time and while he was certain nobody knew he took part in the heist, a paranoia grew with every passing minute. He glanced over a world map and picked somewhere where nobody would know he went: Hokkaido, Japan.
A year later, Jake had settled into Hokkaido. Japanese was a pain in the ass to learn, but motivation came when he walked outside of his four-and-a-half tatami apartment to brace the Serbian winter. His neighbors were all students, the complex only a twenty-minute bike ride away from the university.
But he lived there for its relative cheapness—most of his money was gone, now traveling from hand to hand, collecting their own histories. The titular dollar was the last one he had. He took it with him when he went to work, slipping it into his imitation leather wallet with no intention to exchange it for yen—a measly hundred yen would buy him a teacup or a new pair of chopsticks, neither worth as much as the meager nostalgia for the old country that it brought him.
It was the breakout of Spring when Jake to his night shift at a local convenience store. This job forced Jake to crack down on Japanese, otherwise he would have been a terrible clerk. His boss, Hiromi, spoke some English and had no issue with Jake speaking little Japanese, telling him that as long he started learning, the job was his.
That night, with his cheap five hundred-yen earphones plugged in, Jake walked down the seaside road. To his right was a sheer bricked cliff that held a row of houses on top, to his left the Okhotsk sea sparkling in the moonlight. The tide receded and returned for the octillionth time in existence, those waters observing the crossing of immigrants over an ice bridge, a World War and now a lonely Westerner listening to Ryō Fukui. Nobody populated the street, lit only by streetlights too far apart to keep the entire road visible. In and out of the darkness Jake went, forming one second before disappearing the next.
Then, he felt that odd sensation of being watched, like a scene ripped out of a cheesy horror flick. Jake took out his earphones and stood still, listening. The sea rumbled as the water did the rounds once again. A couple of fall leaves incubated under the smatterings of snow, dancing in spirals around him. The only human sound came from his own heart.
Jake started walking again only to stop again, the intensity of that feeling clinging onto his back like cobwebs littered with baby spiders. He turned around once more.
There, behind the nearest streetlight, was a child. He looked like the typical Japanese child: plump with a roundish face and tired eyes. A black bowl of hair topped this spherical head, conjuring the image of a pawn piece in Jake's mind.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
The kid did not respond. Jake went to him. His eyes were shiny as if they were two glossy pebbles. The sound of a car was approaching, its headlights flashing as it went around the bend.
Within the next second, Jake found himself on the ground, feeling the rush of the car grazing his head. When he sat up, he saw the kid running away with something in his hand. By instinct, he checked his pocket to notice his wallet was gone.
He stood back up and ran after the kid, catching up to him with ease. "Oi, give that back!" Jake shouted, his voice resounding through the night. He grabbed the kid's shirt and pulled him to the side of the road. "Go on, don't make me call the police on you. I bet your parents wouldn't be too happy if they found out you robbed and nearly killed a man." The kid kept his eyes to the ground, to his hand where the wallet was ensnared. "Either you give me that wallet right now or I'll keep you here until—"
The kid muttered something.
"Sorry?" Jake asked, thinking he was apologizing.
"Dollar," the kid said in broken English, using his thumb to push out the one-dollar bill from the wallet. "Give."
"No, I'd rather keep that, thank you very much." Jake tried to snatch the wallet from the kid's hand, only for the kid to bite hard into his arm. The pain was so sudden that Jake slammed him into the wall with enough force to whip his head back, resounding in a loud crack. The kid went limp and when Jake released his grip, he fell to the ground.
A few seconds passed where the anger turned into self-loathing. Jake felt the kid's pulse to find it was still there. Jake took his wallet back and considered calling the emergency services when he thought about his past—if they found out who he was, he could wave goodbye the freedom he spent so much attaining.
Ten minutes later, Jake started his shift at the convenience store. He apologized to his boss for being late, telling her he took a different route this time because he was getting bored with seeing the sea all the time—an opinion the owner did not share, but one she accepted as the truth. He knew this would explain both his lateness and alibi if the police came to the store for questioning.
No policemen arrived and none of the customers spoke of the kid injured down the street. After his shift, Jake walked down that road to see what happened. Yet it was empty, no blood on the wall or flashing lights. After a sleepless night, he scoured the news for any mention of the boy—nothing.
No police showed up to the store that week either, but the week after, one did. Jake braced himself, almost holding out his wrists to be cuffed only to see that the officer wanted some cigarettes. After he left, Jake sighed so loud it sounded like his soul was escaping through his mouth.
Jake saw the kid one last time. It was about a month since the road incident. Jake's sleeping schedule returned, waking up at five in the afternoon, going to sleep at eleven in the morning. One day, after his night shift was over, Jake headed into town.
The sun was blazing above, cooking the urban landscape. Jake wandered into the park where a playground was and sat down on a bench. He watched as the kids climbed up and slid down the slide, swing back and forth on the swings, spinning round and round on the merry-go-round. He thought back to his mundane childhood—with parents who fought on a daily basis, an older brother who bullied him and the friends he forgot the names and faces of the second he moved schools. As he sat there, halfway across the world, he learned something about himself: no one was ever close to him. Hell, Hiromi was probably the closest person he had in his adult life.
Jake felt anger grow within him as he watched the kids laugh and interact with each other. He knew he should leave before he lost it, but the park was like an isolationist's magnet, securing him in that bench. To keep his mind off the children, Jake took flakes of paint off from the armrest and flicked them onto the pebbled ground. He would go home, only the sticking sensation of loneliness emanated from that cramp apartment, heavy rock blasting through one wall while J-Pop blasted through the other. Jake sat there in the center, his earphones not preventing him from hearing both as they mixed and coagulated into an un-symphonic monster.
Students be students, I guess, Jake thought, feeling a lot older than the university students despite only being in his mid-twenties.
Again, like that night a month ago, Jake felt that disgusting feeling grow on him. He glanced behind him at the bushes that lined the grass behind him, to the now sprouting cherry blossoms—no one. Jake returned his gaze back to the playground. All the children were now gone alongside their parents, the merry-go-round and slide rusted, desaturated and decrepit, reminding him of those pictures of the playground in Pripyat.
Standing on top of the slide was the kid from before, only his bowl haircut was reduced to a buzz cut. Jake could not breath, his lungs taking in air but not respiring. He felt claustrophobic. Waving his arm out in front of him, he noticed a blurring trail following it, as if caught on a long exposure camera.
He collapsed onto the pebble path, clutching his chest. His heart raced, confused why it was not getting any oxygen. His lung kept sucking in air but not using it. When he looked up, he found the child standing over him, his eyes a mist. He stuck his hand into Jake's back pocket, taking out his wallet. He tried to call out, only for guttural hisses of air to escape. Jake found his vision going dark.
"Please die," the boy whispered, taking something from his wallet. He repeated those words, again and again. The boy tossed the wallet to the ground and walked away, leaving Jake to choke on his own tongue and pass out.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital bed, bright sunlight breaking through the window into a glaringly white room. A young nurse with short black hair and a nose that pointed upwards was busy checking the IV drip when Jake muttered in English, "Where… what?" His sentences were cut short by his dry throat as if someone left his larynx to cook on asphalt under a Middle Eastern sun.
The nurse glanced at him and exited the room with such fluidity and grace it was like she hovered from it. Jake's mind flooded back to the park, to the invisible force that filled his lungs and kept them from respiring, to the kid muttering those two words again and again, to the dollar he cherished now gone, never to be seen again.
When the doctor and the nurse arrived, the doctor spoke to him in English, asking him what he remembered before waking up. Jake answered the question with another question: that being who and how was he found. After a couple of glances at the nurse, he explained, "A parent with two children walking into the park found you on the ground unconscious, foam coming from your mouth. It is possible you had a seizure caused by stress. Is there any history in your family for seizures?"
Jake denied that there was. The doctor and him discussed past health issues and treatment, Jake leaving out the incident with the kid so he was not pinned a basket case. A day later, after a long dreamless sleep, Jake was down in the reception collecting his stuff. His boss was down there, her car keys in hand, with a sad smile.
"I'm so sorry, I feel like I'm responsible for all of this," she said, bowing her head slightly. "Us Japanese, we tend to overwork our employees, at least that's what the rest of the world is telling us. And I feel like I've…" She could not look him in the eyes, a grown woman, as if she were a schoolgirl once again.
This made Jake smile. "It's not your fault, I was too careless. I probably did not drink enough water and, well, the heat got to me. At least that's what I've gathered from the doctors."
Hiromi met his gaze and smiled, albeit a thin crescent. "Okay, if you say so."
Jake told her to wait in her car as he gets his stuff. He walked over to the reception and told them his name, the receptionist a guy who looked as if his retinas had the computer monitor burned into them. He could see a flash of relief from the guy as he could finally stretch his legs, the receptionist going into a back room where he brought out a plastic green tray containing his personal effects. When he took out his wallet, he hesitated to open it. Instead, he shoved it in his back pocket, pushed the green tray back over the desk, thanking the receptionist and left the hospital lobby, knowing that contained (or was not, in this case) in that imitation leather wallet was the answer to everything.
On the way home, Hiromi's car radio was playing That Old Feeling, the saxophone warm and resonating from the old model radio, vibrating the dashboard a little as I rested my elbows on it. The sea was to the left of us, the rising sun hidden from view but casting orange and purple streaks across the thin clouds above.
"Did you know I used to play drums for my middle school's jazz group?" Hiromi said, her finger tapping along with the song.
"Really? I never took you for the musical type."
"Drums aren't really musical—I'm basically tone deaf." She giggled. "But I knew how to keep a rhythm."
"I've always heard a melody with drums," Jake said, switching hands to lean on.
"Well maybe when I was your age, I still heard said melody. Now I need some other instrument, a piano or a guitar, to even think of it as music."
"You say that as if you are like three times my age."
"I probably am."
"No, no, I simply refuse to believe it—you're way too beautiful to be that old."
A heavy silence followed that declaration that carried all the way back to his apartment. Through the redness of the morning, he could not tell whether she was blushing or having zero reaction towards his compliment. When they reached his apartment, before Jake could thank her and leave the car, Hiromi said, "I expect you to be back working this day week… is that okay?" She sounded like she was trying to claw back the bossy authority she had lost in that trip.
"I'll be back tomorrow," he said, finally making eye contact with her.
Her mahogany eyes widened. "That's too early, I can't—"
"It's fine," Jake said, lightly resting his hand on hers which was gripping the handbrake. "It wasn't your fault at all. And anyway, I like my job—you could even go as far as to say I'm addicted to it." Hiromi squinted at him, then she burst out laughing. "What?" Jake said, raising an eyebrow.
"It's just that, you said that with such a serious look that I couldn't!" A snort came from her, causing her to relapse momentarily back into silence only to start laughing again. Tears hung from her eyes.
Jake smiled and got out of the car, closing the door behind him. He walked to the driver side window where Hiromi, after the laughter had started to fade, rolled down the window. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow, Boss."
"Call me Hiromi," she asked, that once thin crescent a full moon of joy. "And I'll see you tomorrow, Jake."
He watched her roll off the curb and drive away. Jake's body was warm and buzzing as if drunk. He took out his wallet and looked inside before putting it back in his pocket without a second glance. He stared up at the sky where there the Moon was, only emerging from a New Moon. Just like it, despite how his life was shrouded in darkness, new light had arrived and would remain for quite some time.
"But wait," I said, "that doesn't explain how you got the dollar. Also did Jake have the dollar or not?" Our drinks were cold now, my coffee now nothing more than brown bitter lukewarm water. Matt's hot chocolate was the same, his marshmallows melted and staining the glass they were stored in with multicolored streaks.
"How I got the dollar was quite boring and not worth going into. And anyway, we're going be late if we don't move now."
We were waiting behind an elderly couple for them to pay their bill. "Wait, how do you know that what you said was what really happened?"
Matt scratched his nose. "When I first touched the note, like a midday dream I was hit with what I told you. That's how I know." He shrugged, the sign to me that he did not want to talk about it further.
When we were at the register, I put my credit card on the bar when the Barista told us that the credit card readers were not working. He said this in an accent I could not fully locate, his eyes partially hidden by a finely trimmed bowl haircut. We brought up as much change as we could from our pockets, however our tab was only a little short of being paid.
"Shit," I said under my breath, checking every pocket on me multiple times. "Got any, Matt?"
He shook his head. Then, I saw him reach into his coat pocket and pull out the dollar note, placing it on the bar. I was about to protest when the barista snatched the money and put it in the register, giving us half a dollar in change. He did this with such precise and quick motions that it was almost like he rehearsed it. "Thank you," he said, smiling.
It was when we were outside, speed-walking to the train station, that I confronted Matt. "Dude, what did you do that for?"
"We had no change left, what else was I meant to do, pay the guy short and he gets his ass chewed?" Matt examined my face. "Wait, you're seriously pissed off I gave that dollar away?"
"Duh! It's like tossing a family heirloom into the toilet."
He stayed silent for a while, mulling over my words, before responding, "Well if it makes you feel any better, now that dollar is going off to continue its journey. And as you said," he said with a grin, as we stood at the bottom of the long granite staircase that lead into the station, "it's just a stupid old dollar."
This work by chanchanirl is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit /licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0