Janae Iloreta

The Hundred Dollar Bill

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The roar of the city’s traffic had died down and it was a quarter to midnight. The man had been walking around the dimly lit streets, looking for a new and warm place to sleep. Besides a few couples walking by, smiling and laughing with expensive cologne and red lipstick in thick coats with leather gloves, most of the people were already inside, away from the cold weather with hot food. 

High above the man, through a curtained apartment window across the street, a woman’s silhouette appeared. She was feeding soup to a baby. The shape of her hand carefully dipped her utensil into the bowl laying on a high chair for another spoonful. Before the woman blew on it and raised it to the baby’s lips, the man imagined being there, up close, feeling the steam rise from the hot liquid. For a moment, he closed his eyes and tried to relive the soothing feeling of his father’s special papaya soup flowing down his throat and warming his chest. He then swallowed his own saliva, hoping it'd substitute the hollowness in his empty stomach. 

The man continued to walk down the lonely sidewalk, when a drizzle of rain touched his cheek. Tiny beads of water dribbled on the edges of his thick beard, and right before he was going to give it a quick brush with his hand, a pink and orange poster caught his eye. To his right stood a brightly lit donut shop. “FREE COFFEE. ANY SIZE. TODAY ONLY. SPECIAL PROMOTION,” it read. He entered through a revolving door, stepped into the shop, and grabbed all of his cotton-covered fingers at once, pulling off his tattered gloves, then his hat. The anticipated swirled scents of hot beverages, freshly baked pastries and sweet frosting advertised on the various posters around him were only replaced with a reality of scanty donut pans and a washed down aroma of lukewarm coffee. 

Other than himself, a middle-aged woman sitting on a two-seater table nearby, and a cashier who seemed young enough to be his son, yet old enough to buy his own alcohol, were the only people inside. The sounds of a digital sword slash followed by bubbly point gains filled the silence as the man heard an electronic game being played. He looked toward the cashier and saw his elbows propped up on the counter as he held his phone with his eyes concentrated on the screen. The pinned nametag on his turquoise apron read, “Kyle.” Instead of a pair of eyes, the man spoke to the top of a youthful head of chestnut-brown hair.

“I’m here for the free coffee,” the man said hopefully, pointing his thumb behind his shoulder toward the promotional sign at the front window.

Raising his head after pausing the game, the cashier looked up and immediately covered his nose with the back of his hand. He took a step away from behind the counter. The man strongly smelled of sweat and onions. The man himself knew this, but didn’t realize how potent it had become. 

The cashier saw the multiple loose threads on the edge of the man’s beanie and discreetly scanned down to his waist, looking at the rest of his worn out clothes. “What’d you say?”

“The free coffee,” the man replied.

“Oh, that was for yesterday. It is now. . .12:01 a.m.,” the cashier responded, checking the watch on his wrist. “Actually, now that you mention it,” he said, making his way out from behind the counter toward the front window. “I forgot to take that thing down.” He peeled the tape from the day-old poster, rolled it up and walked back to the counter to place it in the cabinet below the register. He concluded their conversation with a “Sorry, have a good night, sir,” and went back to playing the game on his phone. 

The woman sitting nearby, wrapped in a silk, emerald scarf, carefully observed the man with the corner of her eye as she took a sip behind a cup of coffee. Just before the man was about to leave, the woman got up from her seat. Hasty clacks on the vinyl floor made their way closer toward him. She lightly bumped the large tear on the elbow of his jacket, and a crisp hundred-dollar bill floated down to the man’s shoes. 

The woman rushed out of the shop without zipping up her coat, letting the end of her vivid green scarf flutter, and her scent to linger on, longer than her brief exit. She smelled the way his grandmother did when she was still alive, like shriveled rose petals and a hint of woodiness. He questioned whether or not it was the same perfume his grandmother used to wear or if it was just a duplicate of a similar smell. He was sure the perfume had been discontinued the year she died, because since then, he never saw another magazine ad or TV commercial revamping the line like the companies usually did. The woman could not have been a young ghost of his grandmother because the most money she would ever give her grandson was ten dollars and she certainly would not have left one hundred dollars slip out of her sight.

Outside, shrouds of fog had now crept into the half-empty streets and hazy glows of green stoplights struggled to make their way through the gray thickness. From inside of the donut shop, he listened to the muffled crashing of water pouring onto the sidewalks and squinted toward the front window to observe the droplets of water sticking onto the other side. He grabbed the paper bill from the floor, crumpled it into his jacket pocket and hurried into the revolving door to look for the woman.

The metal handle gave his hands a cold shock, allowing him to remember he had taken his gloves and hat off earlier. He put them back on and as he spun through, the fog seeped into the gaps until he was no longer able to see any of the buildings from earlier except for the warm breath marks made on the glass square in front of him. The smooth swiping of the door’s rubber edges down below began to lag, spinning slower than usual. His effort to push the handle harder only made him feel weaker, delaying his intention to make it outside.

When he finally spun himself out, his first step away from under the shop’s front roof brought him into a cold sauna. His nose immediately turned red and the apples of his cheeks burned from the icy splashes of rain as he began to cross the street, leaving almost no dry remnants of clothing. He followed the faded splotches of streetlights, loosely scattered through the dampened, powdery night air. Out of pure estimation, he quickly turned to his right, hoping the woman had gone the same way. 

What felt like continuous loops around a few blocks gave the man very little sense of time, and his effort in filling the air with “hello’s” and “excuse me’s” gave him no response back. In the distance the man saw the shape of a figure waving its arm as if it were trying to greet him, but when he got closer, it had only dissolved back into wisps of gray clouds. 

The hole from the elbow of his jacket widened into a crooked smile the faster he walked and the sole of his left boot had already opened up, flapping like a wet tongue. With both feet drenched, an even greater rush of water poured into the torn boot. It gave thick, soggy footprints on the cushioned interior with each step he took. His persistent calls after her died down when both the clicking of the woman’s heels and her smell had returned. He found himself looking down in front of him at a pair of feet, quickly walking in black heels. 

They started running as he got closer from behind so he began to run, too, trying to catch up, keeping his sight on them. The thick fog floated generously around the woman, almost covering her entire body. It left only a faded sight of her ankles and below. She wore no stockings. The man caught glimpses of blue and green veins bulging like fragile tree branches from the skin of her pale feet. They were even lightly sprinkled with tiny bruises, and pink blistered lines from her shoe’s tight imprints as they continued to run in the hazy night air. The paper bill was now soaked and the man didn’t know the crumpled paper had found its way to stretch part of itself outward, toward the edge of his jacket pocket, nearly falling out. 

He reached his arm out in front of him, hoping it’d find its way into tapping on the woman's shoulder, but there was no solid form he was able to touch. Waving his arm from left to right, the same gloomy air remained vacant in front of him, yet the feet were still there, still running. He lowered himself to grab her ankles, and reached for his pocket, ready to give the woman her money back, but once he stuck his hand in his jacket and leaned in closer toward her, just like the hundred dollar bill, her feet were gone.

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Janae Iloreta is a Hawai'i native and graduating senior at Columbia College Chicago pursuing her bachelor's degree in Creative Writing. "The Hundred Dollar Bill" is her first published piece of fiction. She will also have forthcoming work published at 101 Words.