Only Thirty Cents A Day is a little story inspired by the heartstring-jerker television ads pleading for help feeding and inoculating poverty-stricken populations in various poverty hotspots around the world. I got to thinking, what would it take for — someone — to consider us in the pretty-darn-well-off-on-average USA in need of similar missionary-style poverty relief efforts? Who would be moved to make such an effort? I spent quite a few idle minutes jotting down notes and then promptly crossing most of them out, until finally the solution hit me.
What’s the solution? It’s all revealed by the end. So of course, being a typical tease of the author, I’m going to show you a preview… of the beginning.
Here’s the first quarter of the story:
Only Thirty Cents A Day
Frederick Bolling pulled his little hybrid car into his reserved parking space and unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. His lower back crackled like cereal when you pour the milk over. He was a tall man, not made for little environmentally friendly cars, and he was older than he had ever thought he’d get when he was an idealistic college student, or even after that, when he served in the Peace Corps. Bringing some of the benefits of the technological first world to folks who had no access to it themselves, and hopefully he hadn’t inflicted too much of the so-called civilized world’s downside on the people he’d tried to help all those decades ago.
He shook off the moment of nostalgic fugue—they came more often, the farther past seventy he got—and stood, grumbling, then eyes flashing wide as he turned and found himself face to face with an unexpected man. Frederick reflexively took an awkward little hop-step back. The curve of the car’s open door frame dug into his back and he sucked in a deep breath, ready to shout if he had to.
“That’s a hydrocarbon burner, right?” the unexpected man asked, like you’d ask the time on the street, casual. He held up his hands, palms out: I mean you no harm. His features were odd and Frederick stared. The man’s skin was darker than Frederick’s, sub-Saharan Africa dark, but his eyes were faded blue, almost white, and were partially hidden by strong epicanthic folds. His nose was bulbous and his ears were distinctly pointed, holding back straight black hair that was so fine it stirred restlessly with the faint breeze that penetrated the enclosed garage from outside. His brow had a heavy ridge, almost a shelf you could set tiny knicknacks on. Something about his posture was odd, too. Something indefinable.
Frederick blinked, trapped between looking away to avoid being caught staring and too obviously looking away as if the stranger was too strange to look at. It was rude to stare at someone with… whatever genetic abnormality had caused the odd features.
“I’m sorry,” Frederick said, meaningless politeness-words as he stepped smoothly to the side, face shutting down in the New York brushoff.
“Your car burns petroleum, sir?” the man asked again, moving just slightly into Frederick’s path. Frederick stopped, wondering if his initial alarm had been the right reaction after all. The other man was smaller than he was, but much younger. His features made it hard to judge, but he looked like he might be just out of college. He was dressed like an artist or street performer, or maybe a celebrity trying too hard to be outrageous, with a wide-lapel aquamarine shirt and bolo tie under a pinstriped jacket with long tails and matching pinstriped slacks. Even his dark shoes had pinstripes. Some kind of weird activist? The city had them like it had rats and cockroaches, underfoot in the most unexpected places.
“It’s a hybrid. I’m environmentally conscious. Try the twelfth level, it’s mostly sportscars,” Frederick said, avoiding eye contact, foot sliding to the side to take off on a new vector.
“How would you like a solar car?” the weirdo asked as Frederick began to walk again. “No gas to buy. Not even a need to plug it in.”
“I’m not buying,” Frederick said without turning, walking away toward the elevator, free.
“I’m not selling,” the voice came from behind him as Frederick boarded the elevator. “You’ll see.”
Frederick left work an hour earlier than the bulk of the office, to beat the worst of rush hour traffic. He keyed the door PIN and got into his car, the stranger from the morning forgotten, and tried to start his car.
His key didn’t fit. It slid off plastic behind the steering wheel, and he looked closer. There was no receptacle there to receive it. Frederick blinked at the featureless plastic. In a life that included a new car every other year, it wasn’t too unusual to forget the quirks of the new car and remember the quirks of a past car instead.
But the ignition wasn’t placed differently than he remembered. He even checked the center console next to the automatic shift, remembering an old Saab he had had in college that had started that way. The ignition wasn’t there, either. There simply wasn’t any.
“How the hell… where’s the ignition?” he said aloud to himself. Had he somehow gotten into the wrong car? The door PIN was only four numbers, maybe by some odd coincidence…
“Ignition?” the car said, voice soft, echoing him.
“Um. Yes,” Frederick said. His car definitely did not talk.
The car hummed to life smoothly, dash lights glowing cool green…
…and that’s the end of the preview. Hope you’ll check out how it ends; the links to find it are right under the picture at the top of this post in case you’ve forgotten. 🙂