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All She Could Afford

Pearl Widmann is a college student living in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes science fiction stories, nonfiction novels, and dabbles in poetry when she feels fancy. She enjoys cheesecake and hopes you do, too.
Today was her seventh birthday, and today she would receive her first emotion. She held as tightly onto that fact as she held onto the aluminum box. In fact, she gripped it so fiercely her hands shook. Her mother had told her not to lose it; it was a hand-me-down, which she goddamn deserved. She wondered if everyone in the crowded street was thinking that, too.
Her gaze shifted to the ground, watching feet as they averted her, like water diverting from rocks in a river. But she wasn't afraid as she was swallowed by the sea of shoes. Ringing throughout the street, blaring advertisements cut between conversations in automated tones. "Sick of being envious? Donate! Tired of being depressed? Donate!" These blurbs didn't faze the girl. She ran her thumb in stiff circles around the edge of the receiver, the metal nearly cutting her. But if it had, she wouldn't have felt it. Pain was not something she knew. She was seven years old and she knew nothing of contentment or rage, thankfulness or jealousy.
However, on the day she turned seven, she would be allowed to purchase her first emotion. She wasn't afraid of what it would be like, she had nothing to compare it to. She couldn't have been excited even if she wanted to.
As she wove through the street, she remembered her mother bitterly wrapping a jacket around her daughter, lips pressed to a thin line. "This is more than you deserve. I never had money to buy joy when I was a child." She had simply stared back at her mom, eyes wide, listening. Then while opening her mouth to reply, her mother's hand had cracked across her daughter's face before words came out. "Don't talk back." The little girl closed her mouth, her face hot from the contact. Not that she understood abuse, but her mother had been out of a job for years; the woman couldn't afford compassion. The girl supposed that after today, she wouldn't have money to buy gratifying emotions either. And then she would be like her mother, taking donations of despondency and indignation.
The girl ambled towards a sizable store with glass windows paneling each side. On the door were the colossal letters, E, M, and O. The Emotional Management for Occupancy. Heaving the door open, it pressed her up against the other closed one, threatening to squish her. Suddenly the weight withdrew as a man in a suit held it open. He said something in a welcoming manner, his face brightening into a smile. Her eyes widened, taking in the shine of the gel in his salt and pepper hair, but more importantly, the smile beneath that hair. His expression was foreign. When she didn't return the smile, his face swept into confusion. But then taking in her appearance, and the rusty square receiver, his lips melted. From the array of emotions he exhibited, he must have been comfortable.
She stepped inside, her eyes fixed on his face, as he motioned her forward. "How can I help you my dear?" She heard her voice reply as if it was far away, and he smiled as she spoke. He seemed odd to her; she wasn't used to being around someone who could afford to be so nice.
The man guided her to a wall lined with silver dispensers, each having a triangle-shaped point that would fit into the angular opening in her receiver. Had it been new, her receiver would have been shinier and the facets wouldn't have looked as much like dents from being dropped so often. However, unashamed, she presented it and her meager amount of money when the kind man asked her what she would like to buy. He motioned her towards the section of emotions she could afford. A good portion of them were considered undesirable. Their bold names: anxiety, doubt, shame, guilt, stood out to her. The dispensers were full, as no one would want to buy these emotions. She supposed the price of happiness had increased since her mother was her age. The girl asked the man what he thought she should purchase; he gave her a soft look and then pointed to an even smaller portion of the dispensers, and slightly pricier, but still affordable. These were passive emotions, and she took time to look at each one and their description. She never knew there were so many things one could feel.
After a moment, she told him which one she wanted, and he pulled out a shiny stool for her to step on. Reaching her arms above her, receiver extended towards the dispenser, she pressed her hands firmly against the rusting metal as peace poured into her box. She was filled with a sudden warmth that almost startled her, but not quite. She didn't have enough money to be startled as well. Her lips formed a small pink O, and then she sighed. A smile set on her lips as she peered down at the man on the ground; he smiled back at her. "Thank you."
She left the store, feeling. There was a calmness that was more powerful than the numb stillness that she had felt all her life. It was as if she had been holding her breath for seven years. The sky seemed clearer, the air sweeter; all was well. She thought of her mother's touch, and while it may have been a bludgeon to the cheek instead of a caress, the familiarity of it was calming.
Walking into her home, everything felt strange, but not uncomfortable, a tranquil strange. Sinking into a moldy couch, her mother watched her, sporting a bitter look. "Momma," the little girl's began contentedly as she looked over at her mother. "I--" she didn't finish as her mother threw a rectangular picture frame at her. The frame nicked the girl in the forehead, knocking her against the back of the couch. Her eyes were lidded as she sat up, her hand coming away from her forehead, bloody. "Mom?" Her tone was as calm as it had been when she told the man at the store "thank you."
Her mother stood, a range of unwanted emotions dancing across her face. "Ungrateful child. Stupid, stupid, ungrateful child." Her mother continued to throw things, angrily shouting. "It's not my damn fault I can't pay to love you." All night, the daughter didn't know what to say. Lamps soared towards her head and the child calmly sat on the couch, accepting all her poor mother could afford.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 13th, 2019
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