The following short story is a reprint from Issue 11 (Fall 2003) of Ancient Paths.
Run for the Money
by James Steimle
On a sunleaning afternoon before all of his friends, Martin stood with secret wonder in hand, oblivious to the naughty wind swirling apple wood scents in the air with the smell of dinner brewing, baking, and boiling for the next autumnal hour. “Behold!” he said, and lifted the ten dollar bill.
The crowd of four boys gasped and fell silent. They all lived in a day when ten dollars was nearly impossible to come by for a young man of thirteen years. Ten dollars bought twenty-eight comic books, leaving change for the gumball machines. Ten dollars promised a feast of giant chocolate candy bars all around while they played for three hours in front of the booming new video-game towers at the 76 gas station. Ten dollars meant one gallon of ice cream, two bottles of root beer, a pound of M&Ms, a carton of Whoppers malt balls, and a can of tomato sauce for homemade pizza—and that was the recipe for one heck of a sleep-over! If they went to the movies with the money, they could sneak from theater to theater all Saturday, and everyone could have a large bucket of popcorn next to their soda. Why, ten dollars used by intelligent youth would last a week, a month, maybe a year!
Devon, Pat, Harry, and Wayne licked their chops, salivated, and dreamed with open eyes.
“Where did you get that?!” said Wayne.
“Oh, you know. His grandparents are rich,” Harry laughed, “but can’t stand the sight of him. They mail money instead of handing over presents.”
“Hey, zip it!” Martin pointed the green paper at him. “None for you, whatever we do.”
“Happy birthday,” said Pat, a little too late. “I’ll get you a present later. I have one for you actually, but I gotta wrap it.”
“I’ll bet.” Devon nudged Pat with an elbow. “He’s only your friend because you have ten rocks. What are you going to do with it, Martin?”
“I’ve stored up the energy for a year, men. We all have,” Martin whispered. “We’ve got electricity in every vein. Our hearts pump double quick! Run fast, my friends. Never look back. And don’t let anyone get in your way!”
Wayne started to bounce. Harry burst with excited pressure. Pat fell backward over the fence he was sitting on in Martin’s front yard. Everyone laughed. Only Devon kept his head screwed on straight. “What does that mean?”
“Adventure, my boy!” said Martin, wheezing like an old man. “Journey to far country! Escape the claws of death. Treasure our days of freedom before we get stuck in the mud of life like our fathers. Attack the world and win the day!”
Everyone cheered but Devon, the little prophet, the little fortuneteller who predicted stormy clouds when others dreamed blue skies, who saw rain falling in place of sunny after-school leaves. He peeked into the elms and maples blowing high overhead. He squinted as they hissed and carried the smell of the sickly lake, the reeking chicken farms outside of town, the sharp smoke sting of the steel refinery where everyone’s father squandered the day.
“What?” said Martin, following Devon’s gaze.
“What is it?” said the others.
And the naughty wind picked up.
One hundred thousand ethereal hands grabbed hold of Martin’s ten dollar bill and snatched it, humming-bird quick, into the air. The green gold swooped three yards up, four yards down, then twenty yards away, following the broken sidewalk. It snagged for a moment where old tree roots had lifted the cement slabs and crashed them, one over the other like tectonic plates. In the evil and momentous breeze, the bill lifted, a green leaf with a smiley face. It waved at the boys, then took off again for downtown Main Street to reach some distant cash register without them.
Five boys screamed, manliness lost in the sprinting chaos. Arms waved in the air. Schoolbooks and backpacks slept alone and forgotten in Martin’s front yard behind them. They passed the old man next door, humming to himself. They passed two more houses, three, five, seven!
And the stores were coming, the shops! And cars parking, grownups getting out! Old women with nothing to do holding hands with little pigtail girls too young to go to school walking into junk emporiums for fruit lollipops and dolls in small dresses! Ryan Dell moseying out of the candy store to drink in the blustery, cool, fresh air! Thomas Guerrero sweeping the street or stabbing his garbage spike in the park! Tia peeking out of the movie theater for older boys coming for the early show! Which would see the bill? Who would catch it?
Would their hopes and dreams disappear then under the snap of a small black purse or within the soft folds of warm pockets?
“Stop it!” said Martin.
Devon tripped over Harry’s feet and Harry over Devon’s. They went down together. Elbows, knees, and stomachs hit the cool sidewalk. Their heads stayed high, their eyes focused.
“Step on it!” Pat said. His belly rose and fell as he ran, so that patrons looking out the upholstery store windows may have thought he bounced after the ten dollars rather than sprinted, the whale of an Olympian within sight of the finish line of his dreams.
“Too fast!” said Wayne. “We’ll never get it!” And so it seemed, for the bill bipped, bopped, hopped, rolled, scurried, took flight for days on end, then scraped the ground, out-racing the early Halloween leaves, the white-wheel coffee-cup lid driving alongside in the road, and the wrapper from a Hershey’s chocolate bar pretending to be money on the run.
“Look at it go!” said Martin.
Then it stopped. In the forefinger and thumb of a barbed weed on the side of the walk, the number ten flapped green as the breeze simmered a bit, pondering over the money.
And off it went again, zooming to head height as the trees along Main Street roared into life.
“No!” shouted all five boys. Feet churned. Muscles ached. Voices groaned.
Then, lungs stopped, mouths opened, ten feet put on the brakes. Martin held his breath with all the rest.
“Well, now,” said the stranger in the pale suit and black tie.
They had seen him, of course. They had seen the wind push that money right there into his hand. He had smiled. He had reached up. Leaves swirled around his white boots in a tight whirlpool. The Hershey’s candy wrapper curled and crumpled under one foot. The coffee-cup lid rolled over flat and died. And in one hand, clothed in a glove the color of old bone, he held Martin’s ten dollar bill.
His eye lit up with dark light. It shined from nowhere, two black holes sucking in the brightness of the world around them, visible only through the shut eyes of imagination. “Who does this belong to?”
Devon brought himself upright. “That is Martin’s birthday money.”
“So sure are you?” said the man in the ghost-sheet suit. He reached into the blasting wind and caught a second ten-dollar bill from their blind spots. “It’s not this one?” He put them together, reached into the collar of Martin’s shirt. “Or this?” he said, producing a third folded face with the number ten on the side.
They gasped each time a new green note appeared.
“And what of these two up here?” He reached fast, caught a leaf, squeezed it to orange powder as he pulled it down to young eye level. He opened the gloved hand. Nature’s confetti blew away. There sat two more Thomas Jeffersons, looking over the shoulders of the boys.
“A magician!” Pat whispered.
“Yes, well, how can you tell?” The stranger grinned and fanned all five bills before them. “Or were each of you chasing your own dollar into the center of town?”
Greed blossomed quick behind everyone’s eyes but Martins. Five tens made fifty! That equaled innumerable comic books, years of sleep-over cookies and ice creams and malted milk floats! Every dream about to come true stood on the end of a lie on the tip of their tongues. And would they do it? Were they tempted enough? Did the stranger wait long at last?
He stood tall, leaning back as the wind fought to push him over, to blow him away. “I am a business man, always have been. You want these tens now, but in the years to come you will cry out for hundreds, sacrifice life for thousands. The marketplace is a joy, once you acquire the taste. We buy and sell, trading—you want what I have, and I want what is yours.”
Pat recoiled as the stranger pushed the bills at his face.
“What will this buy you? Happiness?” said the man with high cheekbones and a skeleton grin.
He waved the money at Devon.
“You think you can’t buy happiness? They say that, don’t they? Grandpa? Mommy? Your pretty little teachers?”
He shook the green in front of Harry. “But! Ask any one of those family members, those good friends, those examples, those leaders … and see them struggle all their lives to prove the proverb wrong! You want this? I will give it to you.”
Trembling, looking away from the powers of multiplication in this devil’s hand, Wayne lowered his voice and raised his tone to shake the glass of the stores nearby if necessary. “That is Martin’s money.”
Leaning his head back, the stranger laughed. “We will do a deal someday, but not this one, little man. Chase your money for now, and remember!”
They said, “What?”
“Some things cannot be purchased with money.”
Martin squinted. “Name one.”
Real joy, interest, and amazement eased into the stranger’s pale face. “Youth!”
He closed a fist over all five bills, rolled it over and up, opened it to reveal only one on the white palm. He lifted the currency before their young faces. And before Martin could snatch it away, the man blew on the money, and the ten took flight!
“No!” they shouted together.
The green paper lifted high, soared over the stranger, rushed down the walk thirty feet away—it almost landed atop the five-and-dime!—and the chase resumed, all ten feet pounding concrete made for boys though oft used by adults too busy to remember the name of the wondrous planet on which they lived.
“To the park!” Martin pointed and the paper tumbled and rushed and danced, twisting, left and right before rocketing forward and off the ground again.
“Not there!” said Harry, for the bushes and the trees might make their prey impossible to capture.
Devon came up.
Martin came down.
Both feet pinned it to the sidewalk.
Wayne’s finger took one corner.
Harry grabbed the other.
They screamed elation.
Then, prancing they sang their way to the candy store. Time to celebrate! More time to plan! They had a story to tell and all of it true.
When Martin’s eyes searched across the street to find the man in full-moon clothing, he found only wind turning leaves, only trees waving early autumn, only yawning shadows murmuring memories of last Halloween. “Where did he go?”
One shoulder connected with his left arm and someone else’s thumped his other side. “Forget about him,” said Devon.
“Yeah!” said Pat. “We have adventures to discover! You said so yourself!”
“Did I?” said Martin. With a slap and a punch, they entered the candy store.
Just one last time, Martin’s eyes stole through the glass and peered across the road, and he wondered when he would see that skull-faced businessman again.