Twenty Pence

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
They say God is dead. I reckon I agree with them.

“Please, sir?” The girl stood on her tiptoes, peering over the counter. Her pleading eyes pierced my heart. “Please?”

She was desperate. We all were.

“I can’t. I can’t give away supply for free,” I replied, unable to fully meet her gaze. “I have mouths to feed.”

It was poor reasoning, and she knew it.

“They’ll kill him,” she stated, matter-of-fact.

She was a smart girl. Not afraid of death, but of the foolishness that could cause it.

“I know,” I said. I took a moment, and then met her eyes. “Look, I can’t give you the medicine for nothing. But you bring me half the original price; it’s yours.”

Her face brightened in an instant, her indignant spirit awakened. She didn’t hear the impossibility of my statement.

“Do you promise?”

“I promise,” I said, my mouth turning slightly upward, but my soul far from happy. “You bring me twenty pence, and you can have it.”

Her eyes sparked with hope. She jumped up, excitement in her every movement.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”

She ran out of my store. The bell over the door rang, the cheerful sound mocking the task in front of her.

To her credit, she’s the only one with brains in her whole family. The only one with enough gumption to solve a problem, the only one brave enough to try. The only one willing to take a shred of responsibility for her brother’s illness. Responsibility that isn’t hers, mind you. But the rest of the family refuses action, refuses any help. The whole town knows the young boy is going to die. Even the hushed whispers a few pews back in church agree. But the family doesn’t care. They continue praying, continue refusing aid and money and medicine, continue saying that their prayers will heal the boy.

‘God is watching over him,’ they say. ‘God will save him.’

Do they not know how many of our young boys God has let die in the war these past two years? Do they not read the news stories about children in the city, ripped away from their family for safety? Do they not hear the nightly sirens, or see the bombs dropping from the sky?

God doesn’t exist.

And if he did, the boy doesn’t need him. He needs medicine.

To my credit, I gave the girl some a month or so ago. For free, then. But I can’t keep that up, not during this accursed war. I’m lucky I can stay in shop with the rations I do have. I can’t risk lowering my supply. There are families in this town who recognize the importance of a chemist’s shoppe, and are willing to pay for my goods. I will not risk their business for a boy whose chance of survival is as slim as his.

But this girl is full of more determination than I’ve seen in a long while. The rest of the town seems beaten, but I can tell she won’t give up. Courage runs in her blood. Her faith is in the right place - her own two hands. And she deserves an opportunity to grow up knowing her brother. This world has too many sisters saying final goodbyes to their brothers as it is.

Her family won’t let anything even vaguely resembling my packaging into their household, lest the boy be healed by human hands rather than faith, so, last time, the girl and I had to get creative. We switched the drugs into a sweets bag. Her parents thought she gave him taffy. She actually gave him his life.

The supply I last gave her strung him on a little longer, but without actual medical attention, I don’t know how long the drugs can keep his feverish fits at bay. For the boy’s sake, and hers, I hope she finds the twenty pence for another dose.

I close up shop and head out. On my route home, I pass the girl going door to door, knocking and begging. Her enthusiastic steps do much to quicken my own, hurrying back to my family, wanting to hug my own boy and be thankful for our sanity.

The next morning, I pass her doing the same thing. It doesn’t appear she went home, even though I know she must have. Knock, knock, knock. Her frantic pleas fall on concerned but helpless ears. We all have our own troubles, no one wants to bother with hers.

The entire week goes on in a similar manner. I see her up and down the rows of houses, morning and night, rain and shine. The children invite her to kick a ball with them, but she declines. She has no time for their games. Knocking becomes routine.

She pops into my shop one morning, and places a few pennies on the counter.

“Please?” she asks.

“It’s still not enough,” I reply. “I’m sorry.”

She takes her pennies back and leaves. Her treks through the neighborhood have dwindled. She understands that it’s too difficult for many families to fathom donating money to her, when her parents won’t even give their own for their son. She knows it isn’t her fault, but she won’t accept that.

Later, I see her sweeping outside the local bakery. I see her scrubbing the stones behind the butcher’s. I know the paper delivered to my door was her, awake and fighting before the rest of the world.

She comes in again, a few more pennies added to the counter.

“Please?” she asks.

I look in her eyes and see her struggles, countless days of work. I see a hope many will never understand. But it’s still not enough.

“You’re not there,” I tell her. “But you’re close.”

She looks at me, weighing my humanity in her gaze. She takes her pennies off the counter. I can’t watch her as she leaves, but I hear the door slam shut with an erroneous twinkle.

The paper isn’t on my stoop when I wake up. I expect to see her sweeping or scrubbing, but I don’t. The neighbor’s doors are quiet. I wonder, for a moment, if the boy had died. I rationalize that it isn’t my responsibility, and it isn’t my fault. I hope she knows it isn’t hers, either.

But on the journey to my shop, I spy her. Underneath the bridge, with the other neighborhood children, shrieking and laughing and shouting.

Curious, I look over the edge.

The water lashes the children’s worn-out boots as they dive in and out from the rocks, looking for the glint of coins fallen from travelers. Each coin found finds its way into the girl’s hands, which she proudly pockets.

She sees me peering over the edge, and smiles widely. She happily shows me a fist full of pennies.

A new notion of God begins to form in my mind.

I have the medicine ready on the counter when she pops in a few hours later. I’ve already wrapped it in a Mr. Tom’s Taffy pouch. She proudly trades her twenty pence for it, happy with her efforts to extend her brother’s life for a few more months.

For the first time in a long while, the twinkle of the little bell as the door closes behind her is allowed its joy.