Nothing is Free

By Cindy Koch

The boy held tightly to his father’s hand as the noise increased. Scared, he looked up past the tangled beard above into those fiery eyes of which he was already afraid. That face he saw above was frozen and hot, launching an invisible attack across the counter. The receiving enemy’s eyes darted to the right and left, unsure of how to escape. This young man on the other side of the counter nervously shifted his weight while feeling around blindly for something on which to hold on. This conversation was going very badly, and they all knew it.

“But sir, I don’t know what else to tell you. We can’t take that currency.”

“But everyone takes this. I could walk next door and use this very same strip and they would gladly take it. What is wrong with you?”

It was true. Every other place the boy had ever been with his father, people had exchanged these palm-sized orange pieces of cardboard for food or goods. Sometimes they had pictures on them, sometimes different numbers, new or old, but everyone was eager to receive these ordinary looking scraps.

His father worked very hard for the orange strips that were in his pocket. In fact, He had been carefully saving strips from his odd jobs since last year for this very meal. It was amazing that he could even find work anymore. Since the Electro-virus of ’52, modern industry came to a complete halt. The world was thrown into an international depression as the cosmic reset button had finally been pressed. Luckily, his father had a knack for discovering manual trades from the old world. He did everything from construction to sewage pipe maintenance. He would leave early to turn over their landlord’s garden and plant new seeds. He would stay late moving boulders from the road passages on the outside of town.

But every year, he would scrape together just enough for the two of them to have just one special meal. Instead of the potato and kale stew they had regularly, tonight they feasted on steak. Instead of the murky well water they had to boil and filter, tonight they toasted with orange soda. Tonight was the anniversary of his dear wife’s death. It was the only consolation and remembrance he knew how to give his young son. So, just once a year, his father worked to give his son, the boy she loved so much, a king’s meal.

He was not asking for charity. He was a strong, hard-working man who earned an honest living. He battled through the devastation of losing every cent he had ever earned before the great virus. He struggled to feed his family and maintain his house when all went dark. He fought off defeat, even when his loving wife was slowly overtaken by infection with no medicine available. He wrestled so much just to get here for this one night with his son. And he couldn’t imagine why this place wouldn’t take his money.

“So you won’t take this; my dinner is free, then?” His voice was steady and loud, holding back just enough emotion to keep his voice in control.

“No, sir. It’s not free.” They young fellow behind the counter stopped fidgeting all at once and became suddenly serious. Two large creatures appeared from either side of the counter to block the only way of escape. Their massive figures locked out any light from beyond the threshold. The boy and his father were trapped.

“Are you holding us hostage because I can work with my hands? Ok, so what do you want me to do? Water pipes? Sewer? What do I have to do to work off this dinner?” His father was clearly frustrated, but to keep his son out of danger, it seemed like this was the path of least resistance.

“No sir, no services, thank you. Just the proper payment. If you cannot afford this… I am so sorry to be the one to tell you, but they have been asked to retain you.”

Deep red eyes fixated on the father and his son. Looking more like gorillas than humans, the young boy wondered from where these incredible beasts came. He loved the idea of monsters and dangerous creatures. He drew them in the dust outside almost every afternoon. But faced with this hairy, not quite human countenance, his curiosity faded into dread. The two animals towered over the father by several feet. Even though the boy believed his dad was the strongest creature on earth, compared to the broad shoulders and thick muscles between them and the door, his father looked small and weak.

At this, the little boy’s hand tightened on his father’s grip. The situation seemed to grow heavier by the second. Weighted by the clerk’s intense answer and the appearance of the guards, the boy was now terribly afraid. He also saw that his father’s anger was reaching a dangerous threshold. But the little boy didn’t really even know what was going on. He tried to search his father’s face for some sort of comfort, some sort of reassurance that they were going to be ok, but there was none.

Instead, the boy looked at his father’s hand. Deep scars and dirt were under his fingernails. Years of toil had torn up his palms. But still, strong and steady, he held on to his boy.

to be continued…