What You Pay For by Andrea Lynn Koohi

Maria rips us off. Five cents here, ten cents there. She’s building a slow fortune, Mom says.

Maria owns the convenience store around the corner. She’s a round middle-aged woman with a serious face and a mole on her cheek that scares me a little.

Mom sends me to the store on weekends. Gets her out of the house, she likes to say. She gives me a five dollar bill and a handwritten note: Sending my daughter for a pack of Player’s Light. The note has been folded and unfolded so many times it’s ripping at the creases.

Maria always sighs when she unfolds the note. I stare at her mole as her eyes skim the paper and she tightens her lips into a perfectly straight line. As she rings up the cigarettes, I do what I shouldn’t – I stand tippy toed and dip my hand into a bin of loose candies. Sour Patch Kids are the cheapest option (1 cent per candy), so I usually take five, one at a time, gently placing them on the counter like a line of precious gems.

But today I take a risk. I go for a large sour key, 25 cents. I place it on the counter so close to my nose I can smell the sugar. I avoid looking at Maria’s face as she places the box of cigarettes beside the sour key, as she rings in the added cost of my weakness. 

Maria rarely talks, but today she says enjoy as she hands me the change. There’s something I don’t like about the way she says it, as though she means some other word like dirty or bad. I feel my cheeks burn as I grab the cigarettes and candy and rush to the exit.

It’s a three minute walk home, which is just enough time to suck all the sour from each part of the key, to plunge my teeth into sticky gelatin and lick the sugar off every finger.

The broken screen door creaks as I enter the house. I place the change and cigarettes on the table with the note and bolt to my room.

Twenty-five cents short! I can hear Mom fume. That’s more than ever.

I pretend not to hear as my tongue digs for remnants of sweetness in my teeth.

Her boyfriend’s voice booms from the washroom. You sure it ain’t your daughter who’s the little thief? 

Mom bursts into my room, hand plunked on her hip. There’s 25 cents missing. Who took it?

I shake my head, stomach twisting.

Tell me the truth! she yells.

Maria! I say, my own conviction surprising me.

She closes her eyes and I see her jaw tighten. I need a drink, she says. 

There’s a flutter in my gut for the rest of the day. By dinnertime Mom is too drunk to go, but she says she’ll pay Maria a visit tomorrow because nobody robs her and gets away with it. Her boyfriend fiddles with his lighter, off, on, off, on, and jokes about burning her goddamn store down.

At night I dream of Mom confronting Maria. Maria’s mole enlarging, throbbing with anger, my mother’s eyes flitting across the candy bins, her boyfriend with his lighter, off, on, off, on. I wake in a sweat.

I know Maria will tell Mom that she never stole a penny. Mom will call her a liar but then confront me again anyway, and I’ll tell her once more that I am not a thief. I’ll tell her that I pay. I pay for everything.      

ANDREA LYNN KOOHI — Andrea is a writer from Toronto, Canada. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Best Microfiction 2022,  filling StationPithead ChapelLost BalloonWhale Road ReviewtrampsetNew World Writing and elsewhere. 

Art by LUIS GARCIA ROMERO — Luis is a writer and graphic artist. His story “Ballad of the Wren” won first place in Flash Fiction Magazine and was a Pushcart nomination. He is the graphics manager for Longleaf Review. Find his mini-stories on Instagram @ministorywriter and his tweets @Luis_G_Romero.