Evening. A young woman traced the veins of a wooden table with a painted fingernail, the faint smell of something burning drifted from the kitchen as her boyfriend fumbled with her birthday cake and gift in one arm, while struggling to ignite a lighter with the other. A spark caught, and, with a shaking hand, he ignited the first candle; a ‘2’, that teetered precariously atop the shredded marzipan. He had barely lit the ‘4’ when the lighter sputtered and died. Abbi sat patiently until a wobbly but charming falsetto rang out,
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear- I’m sorry. What’s your name again?”
Laughing, Abbi rose to embrace Dylan, only to have him nearly drop the cake on her while he struggled to maintain his balance.
“Careful!” He exclaimed, setting the cake and gift on the table. Taking Abbi’s hand, his fingers affectionately stroked the places where the faint, bluish tint of her veins were visible. He looked at her, trying to take in everything without taking his eyes off of hers: the warm flickering glow from the candles, the scent of vanilla from the cake, and the joy shining in her eyes.
“Happy Birthday, Abigail. I love you.”
Beaming, Abbi closed the tiny gap between her body and Dylan’s, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him closer.
“Thank you, for everything.” she whispered into his ear as he returned her squeeze.
“Don’t thank me yet,” he replied, pulling away and reaching for the gift on the kitchen counter, “I still have to give you this.”
Abbi took the package with trembling hands. She carefully removed the wrapping paper and found two boxes inside. Her smile grew as she opened the first and discovered a gold bracelet interlaced with brilliant sapphires. The candlelight reflected in its delicately woven chain made it glow almost magically. Tears formed in Abbi’s eyes as she lifted it and placed it on her wrist.
“It’s so beautiful. I…thank you. I love it. I love you. Thank you.” She whispered as she fumbled with the clasp. After two failed attempts, Dylan approached her and clasped it himself.
“But wait, there’s more!” he announced as he nudged her gently towards the remaining box on the table. Abbi opened it slowly and began to laugh when she saw the gift inside.
“What? You told me you needed a new wallet!” Dylan inquired.
“Yes, I did! I just didn’t think you’d remember!” Abbi turned the wallet over in her hands.
“Well, I must say you certainly outdid yourself this year, Mr. Lai.”
Nighttime. Abbi’s head lay against Dylan’s chest, her legs draped over his. She relished the feeling of the cool, soft cotton against her skin and the warm musk of Dylan’s cologne. Slowly and delicately she selected coins from a tattered coin purse and transferred them into her new wallet. She sneezed and dropped a handful of pennies onto the duvet.
“You still carry pennies?” Dylan asked.
“Yep. How would you get rid of them?” Abbi replied.
“I’m not sure. They just seem to have disappeared over the three years they’ve been out of circulation.”
“Well, not mine. And I kind of like pennies. They’re like a little bit of history in your pocket.”
“Yeah! Think about it, in twenty years someone will be like, ‘Whoa, dude, remember when we had pennies?’ and then another person will be like, ‘Oh man, yeah! Reminds me of the good old days. I wish I had saved some.’
“Oh, I see, and then you could sell your abundant penny collection for a premium price and we can move to Cayo Del Carmen.”
“You know, for a tortured artist type, you’re very economical.” Abbi smirked.
“You know, for a total nerd type, you’re a total nerd.”
“Well, clearly you don’t share the same passion for currency that I do.”
“Clearly.” Dylan smiled.
With a sigh, Abbi rolled over and went to sleep, hoping that Dylan didn’t notice her wince as she shifted on to her side.
Afternoon. Light streamed in through the open window as Dylan fiddled with the settings on his camera. Abbi fidgeted with her hair, tucking her unruly curls into the magenta headscarf he had asked her to put on for the photo-shoot. Dylan noticed with a start how shockingly visible her individual vertebrae were in the pale morning light, which also revealed the occasional shadow of a newly formed bruise.
“Is this okay?” she asked, her fingers anxiously clutching the bottom of the lacey nightgown he had selected for her.
“Perfect. You look beautiful. Now, give me old Hollywood starlet who’s been caught in a compromising position in her hotel room.”
“Umm…ok?” Abbi mumbled as she lay down on the bed in what she hoped was a seductive pose. Dylan clicked the shutter, the flash illuminating every vein running through her translucent skin.
Two weeks later, afternoon. The excited cries of children drowned out of the whirring hum of the leaf blowers working away at the piles of leaves littering the schoolyard. Abbi stood watching, her arms wrapped tightly around her against the chilly autumn wind. Her body shook, both from the cold November chill and the sobs that she was desperately trying to suppress. Her eyes met those of a child across the playground; he smiled briefly before returning to his game of tag. His eyes reminded Abbi of her father’s, causing her to let out a sob before Dylan walked up beside her, his arms straining to carry the weight of a box full of teaching paraphernalia that Abbi had collected over her short year teaching at William Burgess Elementary School. Dylan gave Abbi’s shoulder a squeeze, and she gave one last wistful look at the carefree children who played and shrieked without a worry in the world, as she and Dylan walked back to the car.
The next morning. Abbi and Dylan both knew that Dylan had to get up, lest he be late for the bat mitzvah he was scheduled to shoot that morning, but neither one of them was willing to admit it. Instead, they lay in bed, competing to see who could think of the weirdest name they had ever encountered. Dylan was sure he was winning.
“My cousin’s best friend is named Rhythm. Rhythm.”
“That’s nothing. One of my students was named Castle.” Abbi’s voice cracked when she said the word ‘was’ and realized that that chapter of her life had ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
“Ok, that’s good, but I’ve had an ace up my sleeve this whole time. Abigail Marie Cuivre, prepare for defeat.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Yes, like the Dothraki word for queen on Game of Thrones. Last May I got hired to shoot her baby shower.”
“Game of Thrones themed? Yes. It was both the best and worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Ok. You win.”
“I knew it.”
They fell into a comfortable silence, listening to the cars outside and the sounds of each other breathing, until the question that had been lurking in the back of Abbi’s mind for their entire conversation made its way into the spotlight.
“Would you name your kid after me?”
“You know, when-”
“Don’t. There’s no need to talk about that.”
“I know, but just in case-”
“Abbi, please. I don’t want to go there.”
“Ok, I’m sorry.”
Dylan got out of bed and made his way into the shower faster than he thought possible. He turned on the water as high as it would go, hoping it would drown out the sound of his crying as Abbi lay in the adjacent room.
Five days later, evening. A fire roared in the fireplace as Dylan began to clear up the plates. Alec got up to help, but was quickly shut down by his host.
“It’s your birthday, if you think you’re helping out, you’re sadly mistaken.” Dylan chided playfully as he swooped down and grabbed both Alec and Abbi’s plates before she had the chance to get up and clear them herself. Abbi and Alec sat and discussed their mother’s arthritis as Dylan scrubbed away the remains of that night’s dinner from the dishes. As soon as he returned to his chair, Abbi’s phone let out a high-pitched ding and she swiftly removed herself from the table. The two men sat and waited until the soft pattering of her feet on the stairs faded into silence.
“How is she?” Alec inquired, his anxiety bubbling up inside his chest until he thought he would burst. Dylan’s bloodshot eyes stared at the lines in the table until while he contemplated his response.
“Only time will tell.”
Meanwhile. Abbi’s hands shook as she struggled with the cap of her pill bottle. She let out a muttered curse as the top finally popped off in her hands, sending brightly coloured cylinders flying across the bathroom. Kneeling, she felt around for the scattered pills, trying to focus on the capsules as her vision blurred and doubled. Straightening up, she placed two of the pills in her mouth, took a sip of water from the Dixie cup perched on the counter, and swallowed. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, noting every new line and bruise that covered her face. If she hadn’t been staring at her own reflection, she would have thought she was looking at a woman well into her thirties, if not older. Slowly and calculatedly, she pulled her hair as far back from her forehead as she could, using her free hand to hide the places where her hairline was visible, in an attempt to see what she would look like without her distinctive brown curls. Disturbed with the results, she released her hair and hurried back downstairs.
Three days later, afternoon. Abbi stood in front of the counter, crying, thinking of every dollar she had ever spent on yoga lessons and running shoes, as well as the hours spent sweating onto a mat in the pursuit of a strong, healthy body. Now, she stood in sweatpants and socks, trying in vain to cut the same carrot that had been staring defiantly back at her for nearly an hour. She lifted the knife, which at this point felt like lead, and placed it atop the carrot. Using all of her strength, she pushed down until she felt her arms scream out in pain and she dropped the knife. Switching hands, she tried again, and was once again about to surrender when she felt a familiar pair of arms wrap around hers and push down, slicing the carrot cleanly in two.
Four months later, afternoon. Dylan stood in the supermarket, alone, the harsh, luminescent lighting doing no favours for his bloodshot eyes. The seemingly endless piles of frozen casseroles and apple pies left for him by grieving relatives had finally been depleted, and Dylan was forced to venture into the real world to purchase food for himself. After stocking his cart with the bare essentials, Dylan made his way to the cash and waited his turn, wondering, rather melodramatically, why he was even bothering to eat when he couldn’t think of a single valid reason to remain alive. Once the woman in front of him had finally finished paying for what looked to be enough food to feed a small army, Dylan walked up to the cashier and waited while she scanned his items, an annoyingly fake smile plastered across her face.
“That will be 59.25.”
Dylan rummaged through his wallet, pulled out three twenty dollar bills, and handed them to the cashier.
“Do you happen to have a quarter?”
Sighing to himself, Dylan searched through the change compartment of his wallet, seemingly in vain, until his fingers closed around something small and copper. Holding the penny between his thumb and forefinger, Dylan, for the first time in months, felt the beginnings of a smile creep across his lips.
Jacqueline Levitan was born and raised in Toronto and is currently in her first year in a dual degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University. Coming from a theatrical and musical background, she is excited to find different ways to fuse those two passions with her love of writing as she continues to develop her identity as an artist. Pennies is her first foray into short fiction.
Copyright © 2018 by Jacqueline Levitan. All rights reserved.