Twenty Dollars

Carla is a novelist, social worker, and advocate."Twenty Dollars" was selected as a finalist in Money Chronicles: A Story Initiative, a national short story contest supported by Principal Foundation.

Image of Principal - 2023
I tilted my rocker back and blinked into the sun. A whirring fly circled my head. None of my efforts to swat the sucker had worked, so if I wanted to smoke, I'd have to put up with him and the likes of John Falk, the fat man rocking beside me.
"You got mail," Mrs. Cutter said. She owned this care home where me and six others came to live after the psych hospital. I'd been here three years.
"Me?" I ground out my half-smoked cigarette and slid it into my shirt pocket.
"Who the hell would be writing you?" John Falk clutched the last half inch of his Camel with yellowed fingernails.
I stepped over his dirty hightops. "I got people up north." I hadn't heard from any of them in months, but John Falk didn't need to know that. 
Inside, Mrs. Cutter fussed with Alice, the afternoon aide, in the kitchen. Louise Hayfield was stretched out on the saggy sofa watching the "The Price is Right." Bob Barker displayed an electric can opener and Louise yelled out: "Nine dollars!" because she thinks everything costs nine dollars. Something was broke in her mind—she was born that way—so she never really grew up.
"Where's the mail?" I asked.
She pointed to the table behind her.
And there it was. A Christmas card, from my sister, Cathy. I tucked the envelope in my blouse and hurried to my room.
My roommate, Sally McCree, was still at the day program so I was alone. I clawed the envelope open and pulled out a card with a picture of poinsettia flowers. Red metallic letters spelled out "Merry Christmas." When I opened it, something floated to my lap. A brand new twenty-dollar bill.
I held it up to the light so that I could look Andrew Jackson in the eye. My sister sent me twenty dollars! "Sorry I've been out of touch," the card read. "Love ya, Cathy"
"I love you too." I replaced it in the envelope and slid it in my underwear drawer.
The money was still in my hand. How long had it been since I held twenty dollars? Mrs. Cutter gave me six bucks as my "allowance," but I owed most to John Falk for cigarettes. Nobody would find out about this money. I had the perfect hiding place. I hurried to my closet and inserted it in an old sneaker.
I lay down, gripping my twenty dollars. How would I spend it? Cigarettes? New shoes? Books?
"May? You in there?" Louise hurried up the hall, signaling the end of Price is Right. "Got a cigarette?"
"Did you ask John Falk?"
Louise tugged on her fraying braid. "Won't give me none. Said I'd have to earn it." She gave me a wide-eyed stare. She must have already rung up a big tab with him.
I pulled my half-smoked Salem from my pocket. "Don't tell nobody I gave it to you."
She grinned as she turned to head outside.
A van pulled up in front--my roommate Sally back from the mental health day program. I hoped they had kept her busy. Some days, she slept in a back room and then she was up all night talking to the voices. I know she's sick, we all are, but she makes it hard on all of us.
I could hear her Walkman blaring before she got to our room. She paused in the doorway, glaring at me like a gunfighter ready to draw. Some days, I stand my ground with her, but I tread lightly when she's in her "OK Corral" mood. So I waved hello and reached for my hairbrush.
She slung her purse and a paper bag on the bed. "We had fried chicken today. And green beans." She stared as if daring me to have had a better lunch.
"I got a Christmas card from my sister," I blurted out before I could stop myself. I didn't want her to know about the card. And I sure didn't want her to know about the twenty dollars.
"Really? Can I see?" Her fury evaporated when she heard my news, but that rollercoaster ride was Sally.
I removed it from the drawer and handed it to her.
"It's so pretty, May. John Falk know you got it?"
"He knows I got mail. I sure didn't show it to him."
"He don't deserve to see something pretty as this." She handed it back.
"You're right." I would not let that man taint my card.
She plopped herself on the bed and strained to reach her foot to remove a loafer. "This morning he called me fat."
I raised my eyebrows. I wasn't touching that.
"But I ain't too fat that he don't want to get some. Offered a pack of Camels if I'd go to the shed with him." 
"Louise is heading to the shed soon."
"He should leave her alone! She don't got the sense to know better. That man's evil."
I thought about this. John Falk was supposed to have mental problems like us. But I'd never seen him talk to voices or get depressed. There was a rumor that he'd been busted for assault and dodged jail by faking that he was crazy.
I remembered my shed visit. I owed twelve dollars, but as soon as he pawed at me, I ran. I hid from him for a week till I could give him my allowance.
I headed  out to the porch. John Falk had himself a Fanta balanced on his belly. Soon, it would be time for evening meds. Then supper. Then the fight over what to watch on TV. Then bed, and the start of another dreary day. They all ran together.
Lord, I had to get out of here. How far could I get on twenty dollars? If I could hitch a ride to the bus station, I'd buy a ticket somewhere. I could get me a job bagging groceries, stay in a shelter till I had money for my own place. Then I'd rent a room somewhere. Somewhere away from here.
Sally and Louise came out onto the porch.
"Supper ready?" John Falk launched himself out of the rocker. He stepped around Louise and whispered, "You and me got business after we eat."
"How much you owe?" Sally asked.
"Fourteen dollars."
"I got a buck fifty. May, you got money?"
"No." The lie came easy. 
Dinner came and I stared down at my food. Louise winced at John Falk like she felt his hands on her. She'd do well to get it over with. Sally watched them like they were in a tennis match. Every now and then, her gaze fixed on me. Did she know about my money? I can't do it, I wanted to yell. I had a plan. I deserved my chance. I ran to the porch, passing Alice as she put lights on a tragic Christmas tree.
I was halfway through a Salem when Louise joined me. "John Falk called me out back. Guess I better..." She looked at me, her blue eyes filled with terror that I felt in my soul. Why did the John Falks of the world always win?
No. Not this time. "You don't have to go. I got money enough."
"You do?" She grabbed my hand. 
I squeezed her fingers, nodding. "I do."
Inside, Betty and Sally sang "Silent Night" with enough gusto to wake the dead. I decided I might as well join them. I'd make the most of my Christmas, but it would be my last one here. I'd save my allowance, and one day, I'd have enough to leave this place. I'd get on a bus. I was going somewhere.
Somewhere far away from here.

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