"Just A Buck"

"How much is this?" The elderly woman asked, holding up a bag of socks.

Sarah Green had been working at the "Just A Buck" for nearly a year now and it never failed to amaze her when customers asked about the prices of merchandise. She always would take a deep breath, bite her tongue, and say, "It's only a dollar. Everything in the store is JUST a buck."

"Oh well thank you…" The old lady squinted at Sarah's nametag, "Saran. Oh, is that like the wrap? Do you sell that here?"

"I never knew how many idiots existed until I came here." Sarah stood out front of the store on her break. She was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed as her co-worker Becky diligently puffed away at an off-brand cigarette.

"Oh believe me," Becky threw her smoke to the ground and crushed it with her heel, "You haven't seen anything. I've had people come up to me and ask if they could have a discount. I mean, it's a freakin' dollar. Crazy cheapskates drive me up the wall sometimes."

Sarah laughed gingerly, "Break's over."

"I don't see any customers, which means break is still on."

Becky was one of those women who had never gone anywhere in life. In fact, her only real job had been at the "Just A Buck." She knew the place upside down and inside out, and she was aware of what she could and couldn't do. More than anything, she knew how to weasel out of working as much as possible. Her fifteen-minute breaks seemed never to last less than thirty minutes. While reluctant, Sarah followed Becky's lead most of the time. She was only nineteen, making Becky her superior by six years.

When a car pulled up, break finally ended after forty-seven minutes. Sarah and Becky wandered back inside like diligent employees to resume their positions. As she stood behind the register awaiting the first customer in an hour, Sarah realized that she recognized the vehicle parked out front.

He visited the store almost daily. His name was Burt, and he always came in, bought one or two things, came to Sarah's register, and then left. He often made conversation with her, and she thought he seemed like a nice enough man, but his shopping habits did come off a bit strange—constantly making a stop by the store to purchase seemingly random items and never more than one thing per visit.

The front door opened and in walked the man of the hour: literally.

"Hi there Sarah." He smiled as he passed, greeting her like a close friend.

"Hi." Sarah said in timid response. She watched him as he browsed through the aisles, searching for the day's special item. When he returned to the front he had a bag of toy soldiers with him.

"Will this be all for you, sir?" Sarah took the bag and rung it up. She kept her guard of professionalism up well.

"That'll do it. And please, call me Burt."

"That will be one dollar and seven cents," Sarah handed him the toy, "Burt."

"You know, I was thinking, "He handed her the money, "Why not call the store 'Just A Buck And Seven Cents'? The current name is a bit misleading for unfamiliar customers, don't you think?" He smiled.

"I'll pass that along to my manager. You have a nice day."

"No YOU have a nice day, Sarah." He winked at her, waved to Becky, who was shelving toilet paper, and left.

When he was gone, Sarah realized she had been holding her breath.

"Those are the kind of freaks that make me consider finding a new job." Becky watched Burt drive off, "What's his deal anyway? We have regular customers, sure, but they at least have a reason in coming here."

Sarah thought about it for a second.

"Maybe he's lonely."

"Or maybe," Becky's eyes suddenly twinkled sadistically, "Maybe he's got a thing for you. I've never seen him in here when you weren't around, and he only talks to you when he is here. I think you've got yourself an admirer."

"Please. He's a lot older than me, and he must have a family. Why else would he buy all those toys?"

"Honey, you've got a lot to learn about the world. Just because someone has a family doesn't make them a saint. And older men are more likely to like beautiful, young women than saggy farts their age."

Sarah watched the passing cars outside as Becky ranted and raved. Her mind was somewhere else, far away from the "Just A Buck." She was floating outside in the pale orange sky of the evening.

"How much are these socks?"

"Are these sunglasses free?"

"How much will this soda cost me?"

"It's a dollar. Everything is just a buck."

"What does happiness cost?" Burt stood there smiling.

Sarah tilted her head, "You can't buy happiness, sir."

"Call me Burt."

"Burt. You can't buy that here. Sorry."

"Where then?"

"I don't know. I'll let you know when I find it."

"Sarah?" Becky waved a hand in front of her co-worker, "You still in there?"

"Hmn?" Sarah blinked a few times and looked at her, "Did you say something?"

"My God. You're the spaciest person I've ever met. Maybe one day you'll let me into 'Sarah World'. I'm sure it's spectacular."

Sarah bit her lip. It was dark outside now and time to close up for the night. She went about her nightly duties: collecting up all the trash, sweeping the floor, and locking everything up. Becky was in charge of emptying the cash registers and accounting for the day's monies. When everything was seen to, Sarah turned off the lights and walked outside.

"G'night," Becky said, lighting up a fresh cigarette, "I'll see you tomorrow."

Both Becky and Sarah walked home. Becky couldn't afford a car and Sarah lived close enough that it wasn't much trouble and it saved gas. So, as it was the nightly ritual, Becky went one direction and Sarah went the other.

On her way, Sarah stopped by the dumpster and tossed the day's trash inside. Something in the reeking, metal box caught her eye—an unopened bag of toy soldiers. But at Ten O'clock, she was too tired to work up any conspiracy theories, and instead gave it over to chance.

Sarah's apartment was small yet comfortable. It consisted of a small kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom, but each space was kept up nicely and cleaned meticulously. It was an undeniable fact that Sarah was a perfectionist, a trait that she had no doubt inherited from her mother. After a long day of attending classes at the local college and then working, it was nice to know she had a spotless apartment to come home to.

After Slipping into a pink, satin nightgown, Sarah fixed herself a bowl of cereal and sat down to watch TV. By the time she finished eating, she had found nothing worth watching and turned the television right back off. She rinsed out her bowl, carefully washed it and dried it, and placed it back in the cabinet.

Without the glow of the TV, the room was almost completely dark. The absence of good light made the flashing red of the answering machine stand out, and she clicked the button the check her messages. There was only one, from her mother.

"Sarah, dear. I know you're at work now, but I just wanted to remind you about coming over here Saturday for your brother's birthday. You can bring along a friend if you'd like—and don't worry about getting Tim a present. We bought him…"

Sarah deleted the message before it was through. She'd heard what was important. Knowing her mother, the rest was just babble. She padded back into her bathroom and brushed her teeth before slipping into bed and falling fast sleep.

"That'll be ten dollars and seventy cents." Sarah bagged the items and waited.

The customer, a hunch-backed woman riding out the last years of her life, poured out a pile of change on the counter. She began to count: "That's one dollar… two-seventy-five…"

Sarah watched in amazement.

"Here let me help," Sarah offered, more for her own sanity than anything.

"Oh dear. You've made me lose count." She pushed the money back into one stack and started over. Sarah held her tongue. Much later, when the ten dollars, seventy cents had been successfully paid for in nickels, dimes, and pennies, Sarah fell back against the counter.

"Didn't know what you were getting into, did ya?" Becky came around to the register and lifted herself up so that she was sitting on the small counter space. She was smoking as usual.

"I guess I didn't. There's no smoking inside," She reminded Becky by pointing to a small sign.

"You going to go get all goody-goody on me all the sudden? And it's not like this place is high-class."

"Exactly. It can use all the class it can get. I think smoking probably doesn't help its case." Sarah squinted and reached out for Becky's hand, lifting it up in her own, "That's a new ring. It's gorgeous."

Becky pulled back her hand to examine it for herself. She held it up, rotating her hand proudly, "I saved up some money and bought it yesterday. I wondered if you would notice."

"It's hard NOT to notice," Sarah said, wide-eyed, "Must have cost a fortune."

"Got it on sell." Becky explained, taking one last look at her prided possession before dropping her hand back down.

Sarah's attention was drawn elsewhere at the arrival of Burt's small Toyota Corolla. If anything, he was persistent.

"Heads up. One Sarah-addict coming up." Becky slid off the counter and disappeared into the back of the store. She kept an eye on the front as she priced some new merchandise.

Burt entered, smiling.

"How's my favorite 'Dollar and Seven Cents' girl today?"

"Fine." Sarah both pitied and feared the man that she knew only as Burt. He could be a perfectly normal guy. She didn't know, though. She only knew his name, and that he shopped compulsively at the "Just a Buck". He COULD be a normal guy, or maybe not.

Another customer entered; a middle-aged man who was nearly completely bald. He nodded at Sarah as he passed into the back. After a minute, the man returned to the front with a handful of items.

"This is all a dollar, right?"

Sarah scanned his purchases, "Yes. Everything." She was beginning to sound like a machine—Hi I'm Sarah! EVERYTHING here is JUST a dollar. Yay!

The sleek-headed man left, and Burt still wasn't back. His visits were never very long. He usually walked right in, grabbed something, and waltzed right back out on his merry way. Today, he'd been in the store an abnormally long time. Sarah stood on the tips of her toes to try and find him, but could see no one from where she was.

Worried for no explainable reason, she walked out from her register and wandered through the store. Aisles one through three were empty. No one on aisle four either. Finally, when Sarah peered down the fifth, she found Becky and Burt. A box had been turned over and Burt, being a gentleman, was helping pick everything up. The strange feeling in Sarah's gut slackened, and she returned back to her station.

Burt came to her with a bag of chocolate-chip cookies. He already had his money ready, and laid it all on the counter at the same time.

"Here's a dollar, seven for a pretty, young lady."

"Gee, how did you know?" She cracked a rare joke.

"What? That you're a pretty, young lady?"

Jokes are never any good when they have to be explained. Sarah sighed, "Nothing. Never mind. Have a nice day, Burt."

Burt seemed very happy when his name was announced, and he left with his cookies and a smile that stretched from ear-to-ear. When he opened the door and triggered the chimes, he held it there for Doris Bellamy to enter.

She was another regular gem of the store. What she lacked in the suave and mysterious department, she made up for with her rabid eccentricities. With an oversized purse dangling from her arm and a too bright red color sloppily covering her lips, Doris shuffled inside.

"How are you today Ms. Bellamy?" Sarah found strange comfort in Doris. She came in at least once a week, and provided Sarah with a needed dose of normalcy. With all the eccentricities that others brought in with them, it was nice to have someone like Doris around.

"Chugging along, dear." She gave a toothless grin, "And how's my granddaughter?"

"I'm doing pretty good. Thanks."

Sarah wasn't really related to Doris, but they had created a sort of family-like bond. Doris was the grandmother Sarah never had the chance of knowing, for hers had died before she was old enough to clearly remember. Since she had moved out on her own, there were times when Sarah desperately needed something familiar—Doris was that something.

"Need any help today Ms. Bellamy?" Sarah asked.

"No, no. I've got it." Doris nodded and went about her shopping. Sarah was sad to see her go, and she watched glumly as Doris waddled outside to the nearby bus stop. Such a dear, kind soul.

Business was never booming, and one of the many daily lulls set in. Sarah and Becky took the opportunity to take an extended break. Out front, they stood side by side watching as the sun dipped below the trees and stars began to spatter the blackness overhead.

"What are you thinking about doing after this—when you get through college." Becky turned to Sarah, waiting for an answer.

"I'm not sure."

Becky ritualistically smoked her coffin nail, "Not sure? Sounds about like me, except that I'm twenty-five and STILL don't know. You've got time."

"I guess. I thought that when I got out on my own, I'd find all the answers."

"Hah," Becky threw her head back, "You're not going to find your 'answers' at a place like this." She continued to laugh, while Sarah stared intently at the ground.

"Oh, Becky. I meant to ask you…would you want to go with me Saturday to my brother's birthday party. It will be more fun with someone else there I can talk with."

"You're inviting me to a Green family event? I feel so honored!

Sarah rolled her eyes, "It's really not a big deal. I wouldn't go if it weren't for my brother. So do you want to go or not?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I can pick you up and then we can come to work afterwards. You work Saturday, right?"

Becky nodded, "Sounds like a plan. I can't wait to meet your family. Are they as reserved and out-there as you?" She stopped herself, "I'm sorry, I meant that as a compliment."

"No, they aren't. Not at all." Sarah traced a crack in the concrete with her foot, idly kicking aside small rocks, "And thanks…I think."

"Trust me. It's a compliment coming from me."

The night was oddly warm with a thin scent of something fowl hanging in the air. A car pulled into the parking lot, and its headlights blinded the women. It pulled up parallel to them with windows already rolled down, allowing everyone to listen to the god-awful music hissing statically out from the speakers.

"Hey ladies." A younger guy hung out of the passenger side, a poster child for the punk trend, "How much do you charge?" He was holding back laughter, but the dim figure in the driver seat couldn't control himself. His wild amusement came across as more of a wheezing. Sarah furrowed her eyebrows

"Everything," Sarah began mechanically, "Is just a dollar."

There was more laughter from the two guys. Becky gripped Sarah's arm and pulled her back, "Let's go inside."

"Oh, you mean you guys AREN'T whores? I'm so sorry. We couldn't tell the difference."

"Whores," Sarah let Becky guide her back, but in her confusion she stumbled over her own feet. She wriggled free from Becky, "Who do you guys think you are!"

"Bastards!" Becky marched up to the car with her fists digging into her sides, "If you harass us anymore, I'll fu**ing call the cops."

"Bitch," The guy nearest her let a wad of spit fly, and it spattered on Becky's shirt. Her restraint completely abandoned her.

"No good bastards!" Her foot met hard with the side of the car as she kicked it repeatedly. Sarah squealed and ran forward to pull Becky back, but she was swatted away, "No, Sarah!" Becky went to deal another blow, but the wounded car was already peeling out.

It was quiet again, but Becky couldn't be calmed down. She sat on the curb, silently fuming. Another cigarette protruded from between her lips, but even the powers of nicotine failed to soothe the woman's bruised nerves.

"Becky, it's okay." Sarah took a seat beside her, smoothing out her skirt and pulling it over to cover any exposed flesh, "They were just jerks. They don't know us. We're not anything like they said. You know that."

"It's not that simple kid." Becky refused eye contact as she spoke, "You come from a good home. You might not THINK you're sheltered, but you are. It's not that simple." She repeated.

Sarah didn't understand, but she figured Becky was right. Carefully, she put an arm around her friend and rested her head on Becky's shoulder.

"You're a good person, Becky."

Becky turned enough to glimpse Sarah—she cracked a smile and so did Sarah.

"Thank you. That means a lot."

The light from a street lamp was captured in Becky's ring, and it shone brilliantly, contrasted by the night. Sarah tilted her head to the sky and became instantly lost in her own thoughts, while Becky finished off her cigarette and started on a fresh one.

Sarah honked the horn for a second time when Becky still hadn't come outside. The twelve-O'clock siren provided a consistent hum in the background as she waited, but after a few minutes of no response, she grew impatient and slid out of the still-running car. She skipped up to the front door and rang the bell. It creaked open in response to reveal a sullen looking woman wearing clothes a few sizes too small for her build.

"Is Becky here?" Sarah asked politely as she fiddled with the silver chain around her neck.

"Yeah," The too slim woman eyed Sarah with unprovoked suspicion, "Hang on." The door closed again, but not all the way. Through a small crack, Sarah could see the shabby interior of the duplex. She cringed. It was a picture of hell for a perfectionist like Sarah, and she pitied Becky for having to live in such an unkempt dump.

A small weatherworn chair was on the front patio, and Sarah took the liberty of having a seat while she waited. She had rarely been through this part of town. It was, in crudest terms, a ghetto. The flaking paint on the house and the long dead plants that surrounded it made for a sad affair. Beside the chair, a flowerpot had been transformed into a large ashtray, and it was full to the brim with ash-ridden dirt. She crinkled her nose at the sight and smell of it.

She closed her eyes and imagined a time when this neighborhood had been brand new—new paint on all the houses, the sweet scent of blooming flowers and freshly cut lawns, and cars slowing down for children at play.

"I'm so sorry I'm running late!" Becky let the door slam loudly behind her as she finished putting in her crescent moon earrings.

Sarah snapped out of her trance and stood up, "It's okay. There's really no rush," She looked at Becky and grinned, "You look very nice. I didn't dress up near as much."

"Got to make a good first impression."

"I'm sure you will." Sarah took one last look at the house, "Is it just you and that other woman that live here?"

"Oh, well, it was. Her boyfriend just moved in though. We're such a happy, little family." She said sarcastically.

Sarah led Becky out to the car and they both climbed inside.

"You left your car running AND unlocked in a place like this?" Becky looked surprised, "And a nice car on top of that."

"Well, it's still here. No worries." Sarah put it into drive and made her way through the maze of streets and back into familiar territory. A feeling of relief similar to what she felt whenever Burt left the store came over her. She mentally kicked herself for being so careless as to leave her car in a position like that. Her parents would have her hide if anything happened to her sixteenth birthday present.

Neither of the two said much in the car, the radio providing most of the noise. They moved from the slums into the cozy neighborhood of Sarah's childhood where cookie-cutter houses lined the streets in a neat row. Her house was painted baby blue, and out front, balloons tried fruitlessly to escape the bonds that held them to the mailbox.

"Nice. I'm so jealous of you right now." Becky said as she took in all the new sights.

"Don't be. It's just a house—no better than yours."

Becky scoffed, "Whatever. You don't have to be so damn modest. You're lucky, plain and simple."

"Maybe I'm just not grateful enough," Sarah said out loud what she was thinking. Becky's words hit her hard as she was suddenly forced to reflect on her reasons for being less than thrilled whenever she came here. Visiting home sweet home was a chore for her, and she wasn't sure why. Today's visit might make things clearer, or, perhaps, just more complicated.

A sudden thud on the car drew gasps from both women.

"Sawah!" A young boy stood by the door, staring inside the car with his unusually formed face. His lips twisted into an awkward smile and he tapped the glass a few more times, "You evah gonna get out?" His excited voice was muffled by the door between them.

" Who's this?" Becky asked, waving politely to the boy.

"My brother. I forgot to mention that he's disabled a little. Nothing serious." She put her face up to the glass and made a face, her warm breath fogging it up, "He's just like any other kid."

"He seems sweet. What's his name?"


"Sawah!" He rapped again with his tiny knuckles, "I'm seven! I got a 'mote contwol car!"

Sarah opened the door slowly, warning Tim to move out of the way before she pushed it out fully. The car began to whine like a quacking duck as she climbed out. She let the door fall shut behind her and the beeping stopped—then began again when Becky got out. Tim jumped up and choked Sarah's waist.

"You having a good day?" She picked him up and twirled in a slow half-circle.

"Yeah!" He wriggled impatiently in her arms, "Gotta go." A brief kiss planted on his sister's cheek and he was off, running down through the yard and into the house. Sarah could clearly hear her brother's guests in the backyard, their voices rising over the buzzing of a nearby lawnmower and the whirr of passing cars.

"Guess we can go in." Sarah walked around the car and joined Becky as they made their way inside together. She glanced up at the second-story window that hid her former room from view. It was a guest space now, and she hadn't slept there since the day she left home.

Becky stopped short.

"I feel really out of place." She admitted solemnly, her emotions torn between elation and resentment. She turned to Sarah to seek an answer to her problem.

"Don't," was Sarah's simple remedy. She grasped for Becky's hand and led her to the steps. Without knocking, they went inside. The foyer was over laden with birthday decorations, and a renegade streamer brushed against Sarah's face. She ripped it down and let it glide slowly down to the floor.

"Sarah!" Margaret Green entered with a fresh perm and her arms wide. She wrapped them around her daughter and squeezed tight, but her eyes had landed on Becky and, drawing back, she hugged her too. Becky was taken aback, and her arms remained limp and indecisive at her side.

"Mom, this is my friend Becky. We work together." Sarah gave her friend a reassuring look, and with it Becky's doubts were quenched.

"Oh that's wonderful. You're welcome in our home anytime." Margaret clapped her wrinkled hands together, "Sarah, why don't you show Becky around. There's food in the kitchen," she leaned in closer, "And for God's sake, eat as much as you can. Whatever you don't eat here, you're taking with you. I simply cannot have all that junk sitting around here to tempt me. Dr. Samuel has me on a new diet, you know—"

"Mom," Sarah held her hands up as a sign to stop.

"Sorry, sorry," she blinked a few times, "Well, welcome Becky. Tim will be having cake and opening presents soon. Is that a new blouse, dear?" She worked her fingers over Sarah's beige top, "It has a low neck. Don't you think it's a wee bit too revealing?"

"No mom. I like it." She wheeled around to Becky, "Want the grand tour?"

Whatever happened to that box of clothes Aunt Sandra sent you?" Margaret persisted, "Those were perfectly good—worn only once or twice, and some never at all. I've never seen you wear them once."

"They smelled like moth balls and puke, mom. Come on Becky. I'll show you my old room."

She dragged Becky upstairs and into a spacious room painted bright yellow. She threw herself down on the neatly made bed, burying her head as deep into the pile of pillows as she could.

"Your mom is really nice." Becky laughed loudly, "Okay, so she's a very colorful character. At least she doesn't rely on crack and booze to get through the day."

"But she drives me up the wall!" Sarah flipped over onto her back, tugging at her blonde curls as she bore a hole through the ceiling with her eyes. She made a low huffing sound, paused, then sighed. Becky sat on the edge of the bed, and it moaned beneath her weight.

They returned downstairs later for cake and ice cream. Becky choked up as she watched Tim with his joy for life and Sarah's parents—their unfailing love for their children was enough to draw tears.

Sarah, however, drifted away during the celebration. Her ice cream melted and her cake became soggy from neglect while she waded through the endless sky. Her daydream consisted of daisies, clowns, and balloons: a mental recreation of one of her childhood memories. She had many and she visited them often. Somewhere far off, she could hear her father's commanding voice and her mother's static whine. The images of her past blurred and blended together with the present, and her brother was playing suddenly with the playmates of her youth. A dizzy feeling swam up through her stomach and into her head, so she closed her eyes and flushed everything out until her mind cleared and she was back in the room, listening to the last lines of "Happy Birthday." She joined in on the final words, but all she could think of was how ungrateful a person she was.

"You zoned in there." Becky pointed out the obvious as they drove towards work.

"I know."

"I had a really good time. Thanks for the invite."

Sarah watched the road intensely and gripped the wheel firmly in her hands. The whole day appeared as a blur in her memory, and she could only nod in vague agreement. A small hole in the road caught on a tire and jarred them roughly. Becky held the dashboard to steady herself and keep the box of leftovers Margaret had given them from falling and Sarah applied pressure to the brakes momentarily until she was sure there were no more sneaking ditches.

"Your family isn't as bad as you make them out to be." Becky broke the silence.

"I know."

"You don't act like it."

"I know."

"You're one confusing kid, Sarah Green."

"…I know." Her shoulders bounced in quiet amusement.

"Why the hell did you leave home when you have all that? Too independent for your own good?"

Sarah shrugged, eyes fixed on the road before her, watchful yet distant.

"Talk to me girl. You've been quiet even for you today."

"I'm just searching for myself, I guess."

"Oh God. If that's not the corniest thing I've ever heard."

"It's true. I'm trying to see who I am… apart from my family… out in a world I used to never think about that much. So what if I'm living a big cliché."

Becky had the window rolled down and her arm sat propped up on the ledge, half inside the car, half being lashed by the wind. She pulled out a cigarette and used Sarah's lighter to get her started.

"We're total opposites, yet we get along so well. It's weird, don't you think?" Sarah was opening up again, refreshed by the circulating breeze that flew in from one side and quickly leapt out the other.

"Since we're on clichés—they say opposites attract. And maybe you're just intrigued by me because you've never met anyone outside your little sheltered circle until I came along." Becky squinted into the sun, brows knitting together and forming tiny crevices in her forehead.

Sarah scowled and shook her head defensively, "No, that's not true at all."

They pulled up to the "Just A Buck" with a few minutes to spare. A white Jeep was parked in the lot, and both girls instantly recognized it as their bosses.

"Great, just what I need," Becky said as she stepped out of the car, "Wish me luck."

"Luck," Sarah said with a smile.


Becky shut the door and walked slowly up to the front of the store and then disappeared as the tinted glass-door closed behind her. Sarah sat motionless for a minute listening to her car idle. She felt she was on the threshold of something. But before she could get a grip on her emotions, her cell phone began to ring.

"Hello," She answered.

"Sarah, you were acting very strange today. And you sure didn't treat your guest very well. Becky. Was that her name?" It was Sarah's mom and she had dove right into one of her famous rants, but at the moment Sarah didn't want to have anything to do with it.

She hung up.

Sarah woke up at eleven on Sunday with one hour to spare until work. Usually she liked to get up with ample time to get things done, but today her usual vigor had abandoned her and she found it hard to even just get out of bed. But after a quick shower and a bowl of Cheerios she felt at least partially refreshed and ready for the day ahead. At least she'd be working with Becky.

After throwing on some jeans and fluffing her official "Just A Buck" t-shirt in the dryer, Sarah headed out the door. Running a bite late she decided to drive to work for a change.

Walking there took about ten minutes, but the drive was very short and Sarah had parked and gotten out of her car in no less than three. She made sure to lock her car this time, clicking the little button on her key chain twice to emit a beeping noise from her Saturn and then a succinct honk.

"Mornin'" Taylor Thorne waved to Sarah as she entered, but instead of saying anything back she looked at him with a puzzled expression.

"Where's Becky?"

"Oh God, you didn't hear?" He said, putting down the box of Cokes he was holding as if expecting a long conversation was about to begin.

"Hear… what?"

"The Boss found out about everything she was doing. She walked in here yesterday and let me tell you, he wiped that smile right off her face. And he took that little ring away from her too that she bought with the money she stole." Taylor said in a very removed tone, very unsympathetic and almost amused.

"S-stole?" Sarah stuttered.

"Wow, you're really clueless aren't you." Taylor shook his head and chuckled, "Becky's been embezzling little bits of the store's money for awhile. She covered her tracks pretty well though. But the shit always hits the fan… so it's me and you now."

Sarah stood there silently staring at the overly waxed floor.

"Excuse me," A disheveled old man had a basket of items held out towards Sarah, "Is the price just a dollar for all of this, missy? If I boy all of this stuff in this here basket… will it only be a dollar total? Eh?"

Sarah didn't answer him. She turned and pushed open the door, the little bells chiming in response, and got in her car. She peeled out of her parking space and whipped the car around. In her rearview mirror she could see Taylor waving his arms at her and shouting something, but then he threw his hands up in defeat and as she turned the corner he was still standing there watching her.

The drive to Becky's was a blur in Sarah's mind, but there she was, parked out front of the dilapidated place she had visited the day before. Maybe Becky wouldn't want to see her now. Sarah sat with her hands gripping the steering wheel debating whether or not to get out. Becky needed support right now or just someone to talk to.

Sarah got out of the car, which was turned off and locked this time, and walked solemnly up to the front door. Her hands grabbed nervously at the bottom of her shirt, her fingers wrapped up in the fabric. Every time she moved her hand to ring the doorbell she snatched it right back to her side, and even once she turned to leave. Yet she had no reason to be nervous she told herself.

Again she lifted her arm and stretched her finger out to touch the bell, but before she could the door was ripped inwards and Becky's roommate appeared in the doorway. She pushed open the screen-door and walked out onto the porch, and Sarah backed up to give her some room.

"Uh, can I help you?" The woman asked rather bitterly.

Sarah swallowed, "I came to see Becky."

"Well she's inside, but I'm in a hurry. Go in if you want. I doubt she'll come to the door though." She said hastily before turning and gliding down the walkway and then down the sidewalk, her skirt much too short and her tall, black boots and stockings giving her the appearance of a cheap prostitute. Maybe she was. Sarah didn't know or really care. She was here to see Becky.

Doing as the woman had said, Sarah let herself inside. She was immediately overcome by the strong odor that permeated the house. It was a combination of many things—uncleanliness, old food, dog, and the thinnest whiff of air freshener that only added to the rankness. On top of that the floor was covered with at least a layer of junk so that Sarah could barely see the tacky orange carpet that was the genuine floor.

She took a few steps forward, careful not to trip over anything as there was much to stumble over in the room. Cardboard boxes full to the brim of random items were stacked everywhere and Sarah noted that there were enough crumpled aluminum cans to make a small fortune if recycled.

Suddenly Sarah noticed the man passed out on the tattered, plaid couch and she nearly screamed, but caught herself just in time and cupped a hand over her mouth. It must be the roommate's boyfriend, she thought, and she didn't really have any desire to meet him.

Sarah worked her way back into the back hallway where three doors flanked her on the sides. One was cracked open—a bathroom. She moved to the first of the closed doors and knocked, but there was no answer. She walked to the back-most door. There was a stack of clothes to one side of it so that she could barely reach the door, but leaning forward she gave three brief knocks on the door and waited.


The sound of Becky's voice made Sarah smile and she felt relieved, "Becky… it's me. Sarah." She said with her face pressed up close to the door.

There was the sound of movement on the other side and then the door opened and a red, puffy-eyed Becky stood there in a baggy, black shirt and nothing else.

"This is a surprise. If I'd known I would have at least put on some pants and maybe even some eye shadow. Oh and lipstick." A weak smile drew across Becky's face and Sarah threw her arms around her friend.

"I'm sorry Becky," Sarah found herself on the verge of tears, "I forgive you though. It's ok. We all make mistakes."

Becky held Sarah tightly, her head resting on her shoulder, and she was crying now, "I was so stupid. I just wanted to have some nice things you know? It was stupid though, so stupid. Now I'll never have anything."

"You can have anything you want Becky."

"You're too sweet kid," Becky pulled back from Sarah so that they were looking eye to eye, "But you're naïve. Life isn't all flowers and candy and ponies."

"Oh just because you're so worn by the world… that doesn't make me naïve and stupid!" Sarah hissed, but immediately she got control of herself, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

"No. I shouldn't have said that. It's just right now I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore. I just feel… overwhelmed." Becky said. She fell back on her bed.

Sarah joined her, "We're both learning a lot right now even though we're at different point sin our life." She looked at Becky and used her finger to wipe the moisture from Becky's eyes, "And I want to show you that I care about you. I want you to come stay with me."

"Sarah," Becky sniffled, "I can't do that."

"Yes you can. You can't stay here anymore… just say you will. If not for anyone else, do it for me. I want to help!" Sarah pleaded.

"You really want me to?"

"Yes, I do. I want to help you out. I've always had people do everything for me, and I've never gotten the chance to do things for other people." Sarah said. She reached out and took Becky's hand, "You're the only real friend I've got right now. I don't come by them easily. Most people just—don't relate. I don't want to lose you."

Becky tightened her grip on Sarah's hand, "Sarah Green, you just keep on surprising me."

"I surprise myself a lot."

"But you're still a mystery."

Becky leaned over and took Sarah's chin in her hand and then she let her lips gently brush Sarah's. Sarah didn't pull back. Instead she slid her arms around Becky and fell into the kiss.

From the corner of her eye she saw old lady Doris standing in the corner of the room and her eyes-widened. Doris was smiling from ear to ear as she swung a "Just A Buck" bag at her side. Then she faded away, and for some reason Sarah didn't question anything.

"Sarah?" Becky was staring at her friend, "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have."

"No. It's okay. I just… never mind." She grinned, "Like I said, I'm just finding myself right now. I think you're helping."

The women hugged again. Sarah had to get back to work, but she promised to help Becky move as soon as she got off. A bond had been forged then and there and when Sarah left that house she felt as though she were floating on air and nothing in the world could bring her down.

Becky's move was practically final by Wednesday of that next week, and the extra bedroom in Sarah's apartment had officially become her new home. And though the two had shared an indescribable moment together on that bleak Sunday afternoon there was no other mention of it between them and there was only an ever-growing friendship between them.

For Sarah that unexpected moment in time had opened up a new world for her, and her black and white universe seemed to have suddenly exploded into something dazzling that she was only on the verge of understanding.

With Becky living under the same roof, Sarah had a fountain of support to draw from anytime she needed it, and all the uncertainties life had thrown in her path became a bit clearer. To most people this sudden alliance, which most people simply call friendship, would be nothing extraordinary, but to Sarah friendship had never come easily, and she cherished Becky's mere presence.

So much had changed in a short amount of time, but then again, too much remained the same.

The inexplicable dissonance between Sarah and her family lingered and for Becky a fresh start did not erase her past, and it blanketed nearly everything she did. She was looking for a new job as well, but Sarah still worked at the "Just A Buck" and she both dreaded going in everyday and loved it at the same time.

On Thursday Sarah had to work from three until close, and after ordering some Chinese for her and Becky's lunch, she left her friend and walked to work.

A cool rush of indoor air greeted her as she walked inside and her tennis shoes squeaked obnoxiously against the floor. The first thing she noticed was the overpowering smell of cheap, dollar-store cologne that was hovering stagnantly in the store. She coughed and made a very obvious grimace towards Taylor who was the all too obvious culprit—spraying the damned stuff around like air-freshener.

"WHAT are you doing?" She asked, cocking one eyebrow and letting her mouth fall slightly open to convey to him the full extent of her annoyance, "You're denser than I thought."

"Hey, hey," Taylor quickly put the bottle down like a child caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, "It gets hella boring around here."

"That doesn't mean we're allowed to waste store property… or contaminate the building." Sarah said hastily, getting behind her register.

Taylor had moved around to her counter and was leaning over it while idly playing with a pen he'd found laying there, "Well I'm sorry." He continued twirling the pen and occasionally looked up at Sarah, but she pretended not to notice and continued going through her stock list.

"So, how's it been with Becky? She a good roommate? I know I would be good if someone else was paying for my rent."

Though Sarah could act oblivious to Taylor almost an entire day through, his cheap attacks at Becky made her fume. She froze and stared angrily ahead at the cash register, and her body language instantly let Taylor know he'd said something wrong.

"I'll be quiet," He said, quelling the inevitable verbal attack Sarah was on the verge of releasing. He tossed the pen down and scurried to the back to do who knew what and left Sarah upfront alone. If she had really wanted to, she could have marched back and found him and given him a piece of her mind, but the awkward, lanky boy wasn't worth it in her mind so she stayed put.

"He's quite annoying, that boy. He has no respect. Deserves to be put in his place if you ask me!" The calming voice of Doris was a welcome distraction for Sarah and she whirled around in pleasant surprise.

"Hey!" Sarah said exuberantly.

"How are you today Miss Sarah? Fine I hope?" The woman cocked her head slightly.

"I'm good." Sarah said.

"Good to hear," Doris waddled closer to the counter, "Now Sarah dear, I came here for a reason tonight. You know that right?"

"I suppose so," Sarah replied.

"You're figuring out a lot of things for yourself finally, Sarah. You're discovering this big, wonderful world and all the intricacies of it that eluded you as a child. That's why you don't need me anymore. You're moving on form the past. Everyone has to patch those old wounds right up and move along! You understand Sarah? Of course you do." Doris rested both her hands on the counter and leaned in a bit closer, "You're a woman now Sarah, not a girl."

"I know…" Sarah said very reluctantly.

"Oh now, you're sad because you know I have to go now, yet your entire life has been hurt by my existence. You've lost good friends because of me. But you're not going to lose Becky, am I right?"

"Yes. You're right."

"Then let us say our goodbyes. But no tears!" Doris said with extreme passion.

"Goodbye," Sarah said in response.

And Doris did not walk out of the store, she simply vanished.

"Who are you talking to?" Taylor was standing at the end of aisle three watching Sarah intently, "You freak me out sometimes. But you're too cute to not like!" He winked at her.

"Oh right, me—the definition of cuteness. Yeah right. You just want a piece of tail." Sarah said with a roll of her eyes.

"Well I sure wouldn't turn it down if you offered—"

"Get back to work. Geez, boys and their one-track minds," Sarah waved him away and as if her hand possessed some magical power Taylor instantly obeyed and retreated back into the aisle.

Then the chimes sang and Burt walked in casually with a bundle of fresh-picked daisies in his hand and a smile so boldly glued to his face it seemed improbable that it could ever fade.

"Uh, good evening," Sarah said shyly, "Burt."

If even possible, Burt's smile widened at the sound of his name, "Well hello," He stepped up to her counter and Sarah found herself mechanically inching back as far as she could, "I was walking here and I saw these pretty flowers and I thought of you Sarah." He held out his hand with the daisies and waited for her to take them. And she did.

"Well thank you Burt. That was very sweet of you." She feigned a smile and a light chuckle, "Well the store's all yours tonight. No one else here to fight you over anything." She said jokingly, but mostly in an effort to get him away form her.

"Oh well good thing. I wouldn't want to have to hurt someone if they got in my way," he laughed and gave the counter a brief slap before leaving. He turned back to Sarah as he walked, but she played the fool and acted like she didn't see. She was good at doing that it seemed.

Sarah had a good five minutes before Burt returned with a bottle of shampoo and conditioner. She rung him up, he made his usual joke about the tax, and then surprisingly left without another uneasy incident. Then, after dealing with a boy who tried to walk out with the entire store's stock of bubblegum stuffed down his pants, a woman who wanted to haggle the prices of her purchases down to fifty cents, and a couple who had a falling out argument in the middle of the store, it was finally time to close up and leave. Sarah tidied the place up and dealt with the money, as she had been doing since Becky left, and Taylor washed down the windows and mopped the floors (though Sarah had to make sure he didn't use way too much solution this time and turn the tile floors into a slippery deathtrap again).

"I think we're all done. Hallelujah!" Taylor said as he switched off the lights and ushered in a gloomy darkness. He and Sarah quickly stepped outside and she locked up.

"See you tomorrow," Sarah said as she started towards the street, but she had hardly stepped into the parking lot when Taylor's hand gripped her arm.

"I can give you a ride home if you want."

"Uh, no thanks," She said and politely moved his hand away.

"Oh come on. I'm not going to throw myself on you or anything!" He said pleadingly.

"I know you don't plan to Taylor, but I don't know how long you're going to be using your brain to think things over with before you switch over to the dark side."

"God," He was unlocking his car, "You like hate all guys, don't you?"

Sarah was taken aback, "That's not true. You really don't know me." In fact not a lot of people really did know her. She didn't let them.

"Well maybe you can prove me wrong one day." Taylor said.

"Maybe," Sarah gave him a sheepish grin and waved, "Bye. Goodnight. Drive safe."

Taylor sped off going at least twenty over the speed limit and left Sarah far behind as she walked slowly along the sidewalk. Usually not in any hurry, she used her walks to and from work to think over things. Tonight her mind wandered from boys, to her family, to donuts, to Burt, and to a zillion other different places, and eventually her mind was so clogged that she found herself merely walking and staring blankly ahead with not one unclouded thought in her head.

The headlights of passing cars blinded Sarah, but she was used to it. The city at night seemed a daunting place for a young girl to be, but Sarah had never been given any reason to fear it and she walked with purposeful, non-intimidated strides towards her home. Becky would be waiting—they would talk and maybe play a game of scrabble over some diet cokes. It was wonderful to have that to look forward to and not the loneliness of an empty apartment. Goldfish just did not fulfill Sarah as much as she had once thought they could.

"Excuse me," Someone said from somewhere close behind Sarah. She turned around. The world went fuzzy.

The first thing she saw was Burt and he flung himself at her, and they both fell to the ground and rolled off the sidewalk into the brush. She was pinned beneath his weight and his cold, grimy hand cupped her mouth so that she couldn't scream.

"Did you like those flowers? Huh?" He snapped.

Sarah could hear him unfastening his belt and she could hear his fly being undone. She was screaming loudly now though only a small sound could be heard from behind his hand.

"So Sarah, how much do YOU cost? Just A Buck? Or maybe one dollar and Seven Cents? You know that REALLY is misleading. You should fix that." He suddenly threw a one-dollar bill in her face and then dropped seven pennies, on after the other. They pelted her face and then slid off onto the ground.

Now he was grabbing at her jeans and she knew she had to muster up a strength she had never known before. With one swift kick she saw his face go blank and he slid off her. With his hand gone form her mouth her scream penetrated the night, but she wasn't waiting to be rescued now. She picked herself up and bolted back for the sidewalk. But she tripped. Then she began to try and get up again while crawling and finally she managed a half-erect position and she stumbled back to the curb.

She ran all the way home.

As soon as Sarah had opened the door to her apartment she slammed it behind her and leaned her weight back against it. In the den Becky was sitting in her pajamas staring at her and so was her mother, sitting with a paper bag in her lap.

"Are you okay?" Becky asked, getting up and going to the door.

"Sarah? Has something happened?" Her mother was in on the commotion too now and she had stood up and put the bag down, but she didn't moved from the den.

"I…" Sarah didn't know what to say. She was out of breath, but she really couldn't tell them the truth. Not right now. They'd think she was crazy.

"You…?" Becky was waiting for more.

"Nothing. I decided to jog home and I'm really exhausted." Sarah lied and brushed passed Becky and took a seat on the couch in the den. Becky joined her, and Sarah knew from her body language that she was not convinced with the story.

"Well it looks like you and Becky are getting on quite well. I talked to Becky about her finding a job too while you were gone. I thought maybe I could help her out—we have an opening down at the department store. You know, the same job you passed up." She smiled though her true sentiments were far from that. She always masked everything with that grin though—but right now Sarah didn't want to get into anything with her mother. In fact, she wanted her mother gone.

"Isn't it late mom? Shouldn't you be home?" She asked.

"Well I brought this bag of clothes. They're some old hand-me-downs of your cousin Charlene's and they're quite nice. I hope you wear these Sarah. Anyway," Margaret clapped her hands together, "I just wanted to see my little girl before I left. But I guess I'll be going."

Sarah got up and gave her mom a hug, longer than usual.

Her mother annoyed her. Her mother babbled. Her mother was everything she didn't want to end up being. But Sarah realized how much she loved her too and she whispered that in her mom's ear then.

"Love you too sweets." Margaret said much louder so that even Becky could hear. After their hug she let herself out with a quick, "Be sure to lock up!" before she was gone for good. And as soon as the two were alone, Becky immediately pulled Sarah into the den.

"Truth. Now." She demanded, pulling her legs up onto the couch Indian-style.

Sarah sighed and closed her eyes and thought out her words before speaking, "I was walking home tonight… and someone said something to me. I'm not sure what. And… I had been thinking about Burt. You know that guy at the store. And. Well. I've always had a big imagination Becky. You know me, being so spacey and all. But it's never gotten the best of me like this. It was almost real Becky. Like Burt was really there—and he was attacking me. And, I don't even know who was talking to me. The next thing I knew I was here and I'd been running all the way. But Burt wasn't ever there at all. I need help, I think."

Becky seemed for once at a loss for words. She did however reach over and take Sarah's hand, "Girl, you ARE a nut case. But that's what makes you special. Imaginations are wonderful things. I wish I had a better one. But it's also a way for you to escape, isn't it? From all those things you don't want to remember or from the things you don't like."

Sarah nodded, "I've had more imaginary friends than real ones. I'm pathetic."

"No, you're just growing. You're 'finding yourself' like you said, as dumb as it sounds. You were right. And really we're all doing the same thing Sarah, we're just at different places in our journey."

"I've taken so much for granted in my life, and when I look at you and how you've made the best of the little you've been given, I feel so spoiled. Like a brat. And now I've turned a man who's probably the sweetest man ever into an evil figure in my head. And I feel terrible."

Becky smoothed Sarah's hair back, "You're not a brat. And if you were you're not anymore. Life is one big learning experience. You screw up, you fix things."

"I just want to stop being a child. I want to be a woman. Like you."

"Oh God, don't compare yourself to me. Then I'll really think you ARE going insane." Becky laughed.

"I know, but I do admire you. And you've helped me grow up a lot—I even said goodbye to Doris tonight."

"I've learned a lot from you too. Didn't think I would, but I have. And," Becky looked puzzled, "Who's Doris?"

Sarah's mouth opened slightly, but then she seemed to rethink what she had to say and it came out as simply, "No one. Nevermind."

"Well okay. I guess you wouldn't be Sarah if you didn't remain somewhat mysterious. But I love ya anyway."

"Thank you Becky. For all the little things you've done for me. Even the things you don't realize."

With no profound thing to say in response Becky opted for a simple, "Ditto."

"And as much as the 'Just A Buck' isn't fun," Sarah added, "I've learned so much from it. And I think I'll still get more the longer I'm there."

"Weird how that works, huh?"

Sarah leaned forward and hugged Becky and they sat there for the longest time just talking about nothing and laughing. Then they did play scrabble. Then they fell asleep on the couch as they watched Nick-at-Night.

After knocking three times and waiting nearly two minutes the door opened and Sarah was face to face with Burt. He looked shocked to see her and he stood there for a while before even saying anything.

So Sarah started.

"I was just walking and I saw these flowers. And I thought of you." She held out a bouquet, but she hadn't picked it. She had bought them at the store with the sole intention of giving them to Burt. But a little, white lie wouldn't hurt.

When Burt didn't immediately react to her gift, Sarah thought maybe flowers had been a bad idea. After all he was a guy. That's when he started crying.

"I always knew you were the sweetest girl I'd met… but this… this is overwhelming. I never thought… no one ever… I…" Burt of all people was speechless. But Sarah couldn't let him think she was some pure saint.

"Burt. You're a wonderful man. But I have to admit something—I used to be kind of creeped out by you. I don't know why. Maybe it was the attention I wasn't used to. Anyway," She paused for a second and looked into his eyes. They were so kind. She had been so mistaken. "I wanted to say I'm sorry for ever judging you. And I hope we can still be friends. The store wouldn't be the same without you."

She could tell Burt was deeply touched by everything.

"Why thank you Sarah. Now, uh, would you like to come in and have something to drink? I have some cookies, too."

Sarah took a look around her. The neighborhood wasn't the nicest, and his house was showing signs of age. He lived alone it seemed. A large magnolia towered in the front yard and created with it a picture of grandness in an otherwise very plain part of town. The sky was a bright blue, clearer than Sarah had seen it in a long time. Or maybe she just hadn't been paying attention and she'd let countless sunny, cloudless days like this one pass her by.

But now she decided not to miss another one again, and she nodded at Burt and followed him inside. She took one last look at the world outside, smiled, and let the door shut behind her.


After that she visited Burt regularly until he died of a sudden stroke. His death affected Sarah more profoundly than she had ever imagined. Sometimes later in life she would drive by and look at that magnolia tree because it represented the magnificence of life that she had come to appreciate.

She and Becky had lived together for almost a year before Becky had moved out. There was never another romantic moment between them and they never really talked about it, but it is safe to say Becky never liked another man. Sarah on the other hand remained somewhat confused about what she wanted. Her path was long. But she was on her way.

Becky had taken the job working alongside Margaret and Becky became a close family friend. Because of Becky, Sarah spent a lot more time visiting home. Sarah had resented her family because, though on her own, she had still been a child. But now with her womanhood fully embraced she could return home and leave her ill feelings at the door.

When Sarah left the "Just A Buck" three years to the day after beginning she felt she had left a part of her behind. She had found herself there and had found much more than she ever expected.

And after those first few months in the fall of that year when she had begun working there and met Becky, Sarah's life was never really the same. But it was changed for the better.

Sometimes lessons are learned from the people you least expect and found in the places you'd never think to look in.

The "Just A Buck" is just one of these places.