I was a pauper.
And then I found a penny, and all my fortunes changed.
Okay, I may be exaggerating a little, about the pauper part.
I had enough money to eat and to sleep under a roof and even to feed Cadbury. But if my fortunes didn’t change soon…
I’d already talked to a few people about taking Cad in if it came to that.
I don’t usually pick up pennies. But this one caught my eye. This one—of all the pennies I’ve ever seen on the ground—was the one that most people would say I absolutely should not have picked up.
It was so grimy I couldn’t see a hint of copper, and so worn that I couldn’t make out any part of the engraving. My gaze wandered toward it because I was looking down. And I was looking down because I was thinking, or trying to think of what I should do about my situation. As I stared at the penny, I caught a metallic glint. I bent down and picked it up because…I mean it seemed to have some kind of…I could have sworn…
Touching the penny evoked a vision in my mind of a swirling whirlpool, not of water, but of stars.
I felt a moment of calm sweep over me. The problems I faced were real and daunting and major. But there were things in the universe that dwarfed them.
A little bit like how I dwarfed that little penny.
I’d left my last shopping receipt in my back pocket. I pulled it out and used it to pick up, wrap up, and put the penny in my pocket.
The market was closed by the time I got there. All for the better anyway. I probably would have spent money on the “wrong things.” But what’s wrong with a potato chip dusted with the perfect proportion of cheddar powder? I had leftovers at home.
I walked past the window displaying bags full of glittering sour gummy rainbow ribbons. And peanut butter malt balls. Perfect little planets. With a crispy core of malt. A rich mantel of peanut butter. Generously coated with smooth and glossy chocolate.
I sighed. I’d once wondered how I could get a job writing the descriptions on the back of packaged food products. I bet I could do it.
The last thing I glimpsed through the window of my favorite market was a rack displaying the latest designs of blank notebooks they’d gotten in. They were different sizes and shapes, bore different designs and covers. But inside, they were all the same.
Clean. Pristine. Ready to be filled with doodles and dreams. Ready to record both genius and idiocy.
They always made me smile.
I went home. I ate my leftovers. I went to bed.
I woke to the sound of Cadbury barking, but hesitantly. Bark, whine, and snuffle.
I panicked for a second, thinking I might have overslept, and that poor Cad was desperately trying to alert me that his bathroom break was long overdue.
But he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at wall. So I looked at the wall.
The room was dim, so I didn’t see what he saw.
I clicked on the light.
I panicked again when I saw the dark spot on the peach-colored wall. I reached for a shoe. I don’t think I’d ever seen a dog barking at a bug on the wall. Cad had never been bothered by the occasional cricket that found its way inside. He kindly let them alone.
I put my glasses on.
And immediately saw—to my utter relief—that it was not a roach (or a beetle or any other bug). It was smaller than it had first seemed too.
It was a coin.
The one I’d picked up the night before. I had forgotten about it. I’d left it in my pants.
How did it get up there?
I glanced down at Cad, who’d stopped barking now that he’d succeeded in directing my attention to the concern at hand.
“Cad,” I said, in my explain-to-me-what’s happening-here tone, “please tell me you didn’t lick it.”
This tone typically resulted in a defiant don’t-jump-to-conclusions look from him.
But Cad’s eyes remained on the penny.
I reached out and plucked the penny from the wall. I didn’t feel any resistance, like from magnetism or adhesive or anything.
Cad uttered a disapproving moan.
He followed me to the bathroom, where I washed the penny in soap and water. No actual grime or dirt came off. But the penny was definitely looking better. The smooth metallic surface glinted in the bathroom lights. Not bright copper metal. It was a deep black metal. The lines of the engraving were becoming visible.
I worked absently, not really considering that I’d gotten out of my warm and soft bed just before sunrise for a penny. I glanced up at the mirror, daring to see what shape and direction my hair had taken during the night.
A jolt of pain snapped through my fingertips.
I glanced down just as I dropped the penny.
But the penny didn’t fall into the sink. It zipped under my arm and flew out of the bathroom.
I didn’t see where it went, but I heard a little thump behind me.
I wasn’t surprised to walk back into the bedroom and see the penny stuck to the wall again.
The wall itself seemed to…flicker. I glanced at the light to see if the bulb was flickering. It didn’t seem to be. Then the wall turned translucent, or watery maybe.
I rubbed my eyes. I checked my glasses for smudges on the lenses.
The flickering translucence faded as I approached. The wall turned solid again and the penny dropped to the floor.
I rushed to get it before Cad could. But there was no need. He was keeping his distance. Alert. Suspicious.
I bent down and peered at the penny.
It hopped up and threw itself against the wall, then slipped down again.
I’d jerked back a little, but I stayed where I was, knelt on the ground, watching it.
It didn’t move again.
“Don’t touch it, Cad,” I said, unnecessarily, as I rose, still keeping an eye on the penny.
Cad stood close by, also keeping his eyes on the penny, as if it were our prisoner, and he was making sure it didn’t make a run for it before I was done questioning it.
I fetched a pen from my nightstand.
I tossed it against the wall that the penny had thrown itself against. The pen hit the wall and fell to the ground, as expected. I picked up the pen and used it to touch the wall. The wall felt solid. As expected.
Cad snorted. I could tell he was frustrated that I was paying so much attention to the wall, when it was the coin that was obviously the troubling element in the situation.
I used the pen to poke at the penny. And nothing weird happened.
So, probably to Cad’s chagrin, I picked up the penny with my bare hands. I did it quickly, ripping-off-a-bandage-style. But the penny didn’t “bite” me like it had before. It seemed inert. I slowly brought it to my face, to take a closer look
What I’d been calling a penny didn’t look like any penny I was familiar with. Not just because it wasn’t coppery. It was made of a glossy black metal. Its edge was smooth, not ridged. The engraving on one side was of a bird that seemed to be perched on a lightning bolt. The bird was a crow or a raven. I flipped the coin over. The other side was also engraved with a bird. Long legs. Long beak. A stork. Its beak was halfway open, and inside, near its throat lay something that looked like a pearl, or maybe an egg.
I turned it back over.
“What the heck are you?” I asked.
This time I felt it. I felt the penny…activate.
Some tingling charge—not painful this time—crackled at my fingertips and moved along my fingers and hand. The penny jumped out of my hand and stuck to the wall. The side facing me was the raven. And the bolts in the coin seemed to glow as the wall below the penny stretched away from me. Edges formed, creases making the shape of a quadrangle. Parallel planes stretched out away me. It now looked as if there was a hallway in front of me, with the walls and floor painted in that same pastel peach of my bedroom walls. Some force was pulling at me.
I grabbed and held onto the dresser. I glanced at Cadbury, ready to catch him if he tried to run down that peach hallway. But he was standing steady beside me, barking again. The penny was now hovering in the air, spinning gently.
Several thoughts crossed my mind. I should leave a note. I should get my phone. I should grab Cad and get out of there. I should get back into bed and close my eyes.
Funny how I sometimes take an hour trying to decide on harmless acts, like what to make for dinner.
And how I sometimes take all of a heartbeat to make a decision that might mean I get sucked into a magical hole of oblivion created by a weird penny I picked up off the street.
But this had to be a dream, right? So…
I reached out for the penny, letting go of the dresser. That force, like a steady wind, drawing me into the hallway, grew stronger. But I felt steadier, as if I were heavy enough to withstand the force. I glanced down at Cad, who sat up staring down the hallway, as if he were standing guard.
“Stay,” I told him gently, and unnecessarily. I slipped on my sneakers and grabbed a hoodie.
And I marched down the peach-colored hallway.
The colors shifted. It was the first change I noticed.
The peach shimmered and deepened to pink that was slowly overcome by a blush of magenta.
Golden green trickled down from the ceiling’s edge.
I wanted to glance back, to see if Cad was still there, watching me. But I was afraid I would only see more hallway, reaching back farther than my sight could reach.
The penny was technically in my hand, my loosely closed fist. But it was hovering and turning. I didn’t see it, or feel it. I just knew it was there.
After walking for a few minutes, I realized I’d started hearing a low droning sound. A little like some large aircraft. And every now and then I smelled something nice. But I couldn’t place the scent. Was it a flower? Was it vanilla cake? Was it the artificial tropical scent of the air freshener can in my car? Was it pineapple?
I caught movement at the corners of my eyes, but every time I glanced to the side, to see if something or someone was moving beside me, there was nothing there.
The ground felt like tile at first. But then it started feeling rubbery, and then, soft and crunchy, like leaf-littered lawn. And then it felt hard again, and grippy, like pavement. But it looked smooth the whole time.
I glanced down and realized I was wearing fresh clothes. Jeans, and socks. A light jacket, and my watch. I checked my watch, but instead of the time, the face was blinking with different patterns of bits not forming any numbers.
I noticed it was getting darker. The hallway started looking like a familiar sight. Not just random colors and patterns. But blue darkening into indigo, scattered with twinkling lights.
The night sky.
And now as I took a step, I saw the stars stretch out and zoom by. I gasped, and almost fell over.
I stopped walking and looked around. I couldn’t see the edges of the hallway anymore. I was standing up, but I looked as if I was floating in space. And I was completely disoriented.
I stood where I was, facing the way I was facing, and glanced around looking for some kind of signpost.
Though if I did a constellation or a specific star, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.
I did see something that looked familiar, something I thought I recognized. Off to the right and above.
A swirling whirlpool. Not of water.
But of stars.
From where I was standing, it was small. The size of my hand.
The Milky Way?
“I’m lost,” I whispered, and my voice echoed through the empty hallway.
I felt a thrumming in my hand. I opened my fist and the black penny rose in the air. It was still slowly spinning, and it was only because it was spinning that I could see it, as starlight glinted off it.
The penny moved away from me.
I took a step toward it, bracing myself for the zooming of the stars. I gasped again, but kept my balance better this time. I glanced up, searching for the penny.
It had not abandoned me. It was right in front of me. I took another step. And this time, I was able to actually look up and keep my eye on the penny. Another step. And this time, I could see some of the stars moving past, not just as blurs of light. A few more steps and I was able to resume walking. My pace was slow and steady, but when I glanced around, it seemed as if I were staring out of a fast-moving car. The closest stars and celestial objects were still blurs. The objects just beyond them moved slow enough for me to make out distinct shapes of planets, stars, and gas clouds. The farthest objects moseyed past me.
I no longer saw the whirlpool.
And soon, I no longer saw the stars. I no longer saw the wispy clouds of colored gases that I think were nebulas. Or planets whose surfaces flashed with the lightning of massive storms. Or rings of asteroids loosely belting calm orange suns.
I saw just one color, the deep indigo color of empty space.
I started worrying how I would keep my eye on the penny.
But the penny was spinning faster now, like a dynamo. And it was glowing with its own light. A hazy purple light, but I could see it clearly against empty space.
I took a step. The only way I could tell I was actually moving was that the penny seemed to be holding still, and I was getting closer to it.
Closer, until I was finally right in front of it.
I looked around at nothing.
“Where are we?” I asked.
Empty space started to lighten in color, and thicken at the same time, into a kind of fog. I heard sounds, muffled sounds. Bustling sounds. Clinking, jostling…sizzling? Shapes formed in the fog. The shapes started to resolve as the fog began to burn away.
The penny dropped. I caught it and looked down at it in what was now bright daylight. It lay still in my hand.
Figures were moving past me. I glanced at them. But they went by so fast, I couldn’t see their faces. They seemed to be people. Upright and walking with the same kind of bipedal stride that I was walking with.
By instinct, I curled my hand around the penny, before someone jostled me into dropping it.
I felt its shape in my palm, like an ordinary coin.
I gazed ahead. Before me was a path made of packed dirt. To either side of me were stalls. The smell of food wafted past. Fried food. Something enticing, but also inadvisable.
I tried to move to the side, out of the way of the increasing crowd. I tried to look at them. They were covered in layers of cloth, or gauzy robes. I couldn’t see their faces.
What now? I wondered.
But it did feel nice to be seeing things at my scale again, and hearing and smelling things.
(I always thought I’d be fine in a sensory deprivation chamber. Just let my mind wander or fall asleep. But I would have to rethink that.)
I was still hearing that low droning, but it too was resolving, like the shapes had, into separate threads of sound. Chattering…
It was voices!
But I couldn’t tell what they were saying. What the language was.
I brought my curled fist up to my mouth. “Any idea where I could find a translator?”
I turned toward the sound of the word. I blinked, and the stall before me resolved completely. I saw it clearly. Swaying poles draped with silken cloths in rich warm earthen shades. A slightly angled table held four shelves displaying various glass orbs filled with rippling colored liquids.
A man stood behind the display. He had a golden complexion and silver-gray hair loosely tucked under a gold skullcap. He smiled and waved me over.
“You’re human!” he said.
By his surprise, I took it to mean that he was not. But he looked human. Assuming I could trust my perceptions.
“You can understand me?” he asked.
I nodded. “I can.”
“Good, good. That will make it easier for me to explain.”
He didn’t give me his name. He didn’t ask for mine.
He just started talking, so I listened.
There was only one currency that was able to abide at the nexus of all existence. The black penny. (That’s what I called it, in my world.)
For that reason, it was the only currency that was universally accepted at the market where I’d found myself. For that reason, a single black penny could purchase anything in the market.
“Let me guess, it’s worthless where you are,” he said. “But it’s worth all in the market.”
He explained to me what I would be able to buy with my black penny. The potential purchases represented by the globes filled with amorphous blobs of colored ink.
It was all the kind of stuff that a person could dream about. Riches, luxuries, opportunities—real opportunities. Extravagant trips. Fine food and drink.
“You know, it’s strange,” he said, interrupting himself. “I understood that humans have thirteen senses.”
I arched my brow and offered a polite smile. “I only know how to use five of them.”
“Really?” He narrowed his eyes and peered at me. “Strange…by my observations, you’re not using any of them.” He shrugged and went on describing potential purchases.
Mansions, jets, yachts.
“My own rocket ship?” I asked.
“If you want, sure! Is that what you want?” He lifted a globe from a middle shelf. I saw the inks taking on the shape of a rocket ship.
I grinned…and then I sighed. “Well, I might as well do the right thing and buy peace and prosperity for all on planet Earth.”
(I wanted to leave out the worst people…I wondered how I could do that. Would there be a contract?)
The man tipped his head to the side and then shook it. He explained the basic rules of the market. One penny. One person. If Earth was where we currently were, at or even near the market, it would work. But my home was as far away from the market as it was possible to go. That far out, the penny’s purchasing powers become limited. So limited that they vanished altogether. For all but one person.
I wasn’t surprised that there were limits. But he had brought up one of my questions. “If you don’t mind my asking, where are we actually? I mean, not us specifically. We are in the market. But where is the market?”
The man beamed. “I forget. There it is. The famous human curiosity. I love it. Very well, ask and you shall be answered. But I caution you, the answers will fill you with even more doubt than you now carry. And you are heavy with doubt, my friend.”
He told me the truth of what the penny was, and how and why it had brought me to the market, which was a market in the perception of beings like me. But in the grand scheme of the cosmos, the market was the center of all existence.
When the cosmos came into existence, there were parts of it that were meant to be scattered far, far away from the center. And parts that were meant to remain at the center, at the hub. And there were parts that were meant to radiate from the hub to the farthest edges, like spokes.
There were many “black pennies” in the cosmos. They were physical manifestations of particles that together were meant to become these spokes, spanning the cosmos, connecting the center to the edge, and all in between. But they were somehow scattered unevenly across the cosmos. For this reason, there was an instability in the very fabric of reality of which most beings like me were not yet aware. If a sentient civilization like humanity lasted long enough, its scientists would eventually confirm this instability. And would know there was nothing that could be done about it.
Those who came across a black penny would have to choose to bring it back to where it originated. So that it could follow its path back out to where it naturally belonged.
“But most sentient beings exist at the edge of the cosmos,” the man said, “where most pennies lose almost all their vitality. All their inherent magnificence.”
Only the pennies that would probably have ended up near the edge of the cosmos anyway retained a small amount of the primal energies that they originated with. Energies that burned fiercer than a galaxy full of stars. Energies that could make any wonderful thing possible.
“Only wonderful things, huh?” I asked.
The man adjusted his skullcap and sighed. “It’s the imbalance that makes terrible things possible.”
That penny that I’d found…my touching it seemed to have woken it up. It regained some property that it needed to galvanize it, drive it to return to the market.
“The market is all of a step away if the short path is taken,” the man said, glancing down at my penny-holding hand. “Or an eternity away if one is traveling the long path.”
The penny couldn’t return to the market on its own. It needed a sentient being to interact with it and carry it. But most had no interest. The penny I’d picked up, for instance, wasn’t shiny enough to be part of a bird’s nest. It didn’t smell like food. So it had been lying on the ground for a while. What made me pick it up might have been a spark of sense within me—maybe one of those thirteen senses that my new friend had mentioned.
I rubbed my chin. “So, once I spend the penny, I get my…whatever I ask within the limits you mentioned, and the penny goes back to the hub?”
“Oh, no, no. The penny goes back out to the cosmos. Randomly appearing somewhere.”
“Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. Then you’re back to square one.”
The man shook his head. “As I said, most of the pennies are nowhere near beings who could carry them back here. They are inert, sleeping, and they’ll stay that way forever. The cosmos is decaying. It wasn’t meant to. But it is. Slowly enough so that people like you will never know the difference. But…if all the pennies can’t be brought back, then at least the ones who do come to us can do some good in the life of the one who brought it to us.”
“As my purchase, could I ask for all the black pennies to make their way to this market?”
“The pennies are each of equal worth. One cannot summon the others.”
It was dream. Obviously. Had to be. I didn’t have to do the right thing.
I handed my penny to the man. “Here, will you take it where it belongs?”
He glanced down at the penny. “I wasn’t trying to talk to you into surrendering it, you know.”
I shrugged as he plucked it gently from my fingers. “I don’t have fancy taste. I probably don’t need a magic penny to get what I want. Just regular pennies…tons of them. I’ll just have to figure it out.”
The man held up the penny. “This is a drop in the ocean. It will make no difference to the stability of the cosmos if you spend it.”
I looked at the penny. The impulse to spend it surged through my chest. I inhaled and exhaled. “I don’t suppose you have any openings? For an assistant maybe?”
“The penny is the only currency worth anything here.” He smiled softly. “Sorry, friend. Are you absolutely certain you don’t want to spend it? I can see that you need for your fortunes to turn. The penny can do that. It can provide you a fortune.”
“Believe me, I could use one of those, but…” I pointed to the penny. “They need to fly to where they belong.”
If I can’t fly to where I belong, at least the penny can.
“A noble sacrifice on your part. And if the rules of the cosmos allowed it, I would grant you some parting gift.”
“No worries. Thanks for explaining things to me. Good luck with the rest of eternity.”
The man beamed again, and so did his gold skullcap. It beamed actual rays of light. “Follow the signs, my friend. The ones in your language. They will lead you out of the market, and once there, you’ll be a step away from home.”
I took a step back as I waved.
The man held up his free hand in return. But suddenly, he gasped.
The black penny—the one he still held in his other hand—leapt up and zoomed toward me.
It hovered just above my head. Then it dropped. I caught it. I always seemed to be quick enough to catch it.
I glanced up at my new friend. “What does it mean?”
He was throwing a silken cloth over his wares. “I have a feeling It means this won’t be your last visit to the market.”
I felt the penny, flat against my palm, thrumming with energy.
I had more questions. I could ask them, but even as they formed in my mind, I had the answers to some of them. And the others, I might be able to find on my own.
I could ask anyway, to make sure I was right. But it looked like my new friend was closing up shop.
With another wave, I started walking away.
Did this penny belong with me?
It did. It belonged on Earth all along. It just didn’t know for sure, until it came to the market, until I gave it up.
Could the penny help me find other black pennies? What was the likelihood there even were any more on Earth? And what would I do if the next black penny was overseas somewhere? I didn’t have the means to go jetting around the planet. And what if there were pennies on other planets? I’d passed up my chance to purchase a rocket ship.
I asked myself these questions as I followed the signs out of the market. I felt the penny in my hand thrumming in different patterns. As if in response?
The market began to fade into fog again. The sounds diminished. The shapes became shadows.
I took a step and I was standing in my bedroom, in the spot where I’d found a penny stuck to the wall.
Cadbury sat in front of me.
I knelt down and ruffled his head as I brought my penny-holding hand to his nose. I opened my fist and revealed a shiny black penny, glowing with a black-purple aura.
“Get used to it, Cad,” I said, scratching under his chin. “I want us all to stick together. If I can’t figure it out on my own, I guess I’ll have to swallow my pride and get someone to help me out. But I want us to stick together.”
Cad looked up at me, a happy twinkle in his eye.
I was awake, not dreaming. It was real, not illusion.
As far as I could tell.
Nothing had changed. Not yet.
But something had changed.
I was a pauper.
And then I found a penny…
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel