The Price

by Katherine Hu
Issue: Aphelion (Spring 2016)

Her foot dropped forward.




And again. There.

Mara paused for just about a second, waiting for the greetings to tumble into the air—something to lift her attention away from the hole in her left sock. They came, as usual, exactly two seconds after she stepped off the thirteenth step; one second after she’d begun to contemplate buying new socks.

“Good morning. Come eat your breakfast, now, or you’ll be late for work. And get your papers off the table, Tom. ”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good morning, Mom. Dad.” Mara drifted into the kitchen and took her seat. She looked over the table. A triangle of three plates painted perfect symmetry, each in front of one of the three steel chairs that flanked the round table. A picture frame sat perfectly centered in the middle; it held firm a picture treated roughly by time’s unforgiving fingers, with the corners no longer sharp and the edges no longer smooth. Three faces peered out of the shot, faintly smiling, and a careful look revealed the smudged date written in the corner: 5/14/04 .

Mara stared at her plate. The usual. Two pieces of bread and one egg, sunny side up—like a single eye glaring up at her, its iris a drab yellow-orange reminiscent of a dimming light bulb. Or maybe it was a little brighter. Not that it mattered; it was all the same to her. Mara picked up her fork, in unison with her parents, and listened to the rhythmic screech and scrape of fork-against-plate. Raise fork—open mouthlower fork—chew twenty-three times.

And then, like all her mornings before, she was being pulled into a pool of molasses, and couldn’t escape, and didn’t want to bother trying. It dripped over her, and hummed into her ear, and dared her to swallow the tasteless lump of egg and bread. Maybe she should fight it. Or maybe she could give up.

Mara finished her meal on the fourteenth bite, and the beat of the forks slowed as only two continued to move.

“I’m off.” She placed her fork and plate into the sink, and moved toward the doorway She found her keys waiting on the third hook by the door and stepped outside.

Mara knew the way to work better than she knew herself. It was simple: she would step out her house and into her car, drive to the other end of Hargrave Street, take a left, two rights, drive on the main road for fifteen minutes, and the long gray rectangle of an office would be there. She could do it without thinking.

What if I do it without thinking? No thinking, at all. That would be stupid. But I could do it.

In twenty minutes, she stopped the car. Of course she could make it to work without thinking; there was nothing remotely surprising about it. She’d made the same trip five days a week for the past four years.

Mara stepped out of her car. It was a stupid decision. I knew it was stupid.

Her gaze roamed across the street for the gray building, to the left, and traveled straight for a few miles. There was nothing there. Her eyes snapped shut. She forced them open. She swept her gaze back to the right. Still nothing.

She felt she should be worried. Why am I not worried? She mused over this for nearly half a second, and shrugged it off. She didn’t care much whether or not she was shut in her office, whittling away the hours with her eyes glued to a screen and her fingers tapping out a never-ending, never-varying beat against the keyboard.

And then again, she was engulfed by that dreadfully inescapable sensation: as if she had been wandering through thickset fog for eternity and more, eyes closed, with her legs becoming unsteady and fragile from exhaustion, only to open her eyes and find she had gone absolutely nowhere. And once more, she was overwhelmed by that stillness in her head, as if the gears of her mind had been neglected for centuries, left ungreased, and so came to a halt. The stillness that had been slowly lulling her emotions towards an endless slumber for the past few years. She felt heavy. Was it the concrete? She glanced down at the gray concrete. Solid. It felt as if she were melting into it, as if it were freshly poured and pulling her down, and down, and down. Or as maybe it was the other way around. She forced out a breath, hoping it would relieve some of the weight. It didn’t.

“Alright there, ma’am? You look a little lost.”

There stood a man a few feet in front of her, behind a rickety little stand. A flimsy paper sign, crudely attached to the metal frame, read “T I R E D?” in fading red. The sign, giving in to the wind, knocked against the metal with a resounding click at 30-second intervals.

“… I’m fine.” Mara took a step back, but the irritation growing inside of her paused and shuffled aside to make some room for a jittery curiosity she hadn’t felt in years.

She fixed her eyes on the man, scrutinizing him with all the diligence she could possibly muster. His eyes, dark pools of molasses, returned her gaze, and she could’ve sworn she saw a ripple pass through them. The corners of his lips tugged upwards. “You’re confused? Well, that’s no concern. I do have a business to run. So can we get on with it? I’m quite busy.” He made a beckoning gesture.

“I’m the only person here.”

“I do suggest that you take a look around.” The man barked out a laugh, deafening and empty all at once, and Mara almost thought she could pop it. Like a balloon.

She swung around, and for the first time observed the scattered crowd behind her. The mass was boundless, rippling, stretching as far as her vision could go, and further. The people floated about like distracted children, disorientation and disinterest twisted into their indistinguishable gaits. There was not a spark of emotion in the sea of expressionless visages.

Mara turned back to the man, and glanced again at the sign. “I’m not tired, I think. If you want business, I can’t help you there.”

“Are you not? Alright, maybe you’re not tired. But you’re somewhere along those lines, wouldn’t you say?” The man laughed, and his yellowing teeth peeked out from his lips.

Mara remained quiet. She was tired, in a way. Tired of the lack of excitement in each day; the never-changing commute to work, the hollow morning greetings, the bread and the eggs. She was tired of having to breathe without stopping, every second, without a single moment’s rest. And that dark, dark molasses that accompanied her each day seemed delighted at this, as it invaded her lungs and smothered her breath with more will than ever.

Silence danced around her mockingly, yelling, and as it grew louder it began to tug at her sleeves, and yank at her hair, and push at her patience. It prodded her for an answer. Again she heaved out a breath, attempting to rid of her exasperation.

The man seemed only amused at this. “Well, now. Penny for your thoughts? Really. Just a penny. Oh, don’t give me that look! I may have only been in charge of this stand for two centuries, but I can still do my job properly. Here’s how it works: lay all your worries, all your thoughts onto that penny, and give it to me. That’s it. Life’s demanding, and I’m giving you a deal here.”

Mara picked up a foot and paused, hovering it over the concrete. She was tempted. A slight pressure pushed against her back, and invisible hands pulled her forward. Her mind had been in the doldrums for long enough. Maybe it was time to stop meandering and find a way out.

She took the step.

If she simply handed him a penny, perhaps the ground beneath her would loosen its firm grip. Or perhaps she wouldn’t have to struggle against the sea of molasses that threatened to drown her.

Maybe it’s a joke. But it can’t hurt. She dug through her wallet, curled her fingers around the rounded metal of a penny, and pulled it out, only vaguely registering the pain in her eyes as light glinted off the coin.

She approached the man, and the closer she moved the penny towards him, the more the restless impatience rampaging inside of her came to a rest. The “T I R E D?” sign continued to strike against the frame of the stand, and the incessant noise seemed to grow louder. She eyed the penny one last time, seeing the faded copper color, but not processing it—when had the world become colorless to her? When had her emotions begun to swirl slowly into this monochromatic scheme? It didn’t matter anymore. The man took the penny; his crooked teeth gleamed in the light.

“Thank you for your business.”



“Eat your breakfast now, Tom, or you’ll be late for work. And get your papers off the table.”

“Yes, of course.”

Two evenly spaced plates painted perfect symmetry, each in front of one of the two steel chairs that flanked the round table. A picture frame sat perfectly centered in the middle; the worn photograph displayed two faces peering out of the shot, faintly smiling. A smudged date was written in the corner: 5/14/04.

In the house at the end of Hargrave Street, the couple picked up their forks, and listened to the rhythmic screech and scrape of fork-against-plate.