This story by Todd Thompson was one of the runners up in our Three-Minute Fiction contest.
It was thirty-seven dollars.
I counted it twice; a twenty, two fives and seven ones. The bills folded neatly together with a gimme money clip from an auto parts chain long out of business, I popped the clip open and shut, the thwack playing a mind trick on me. Instantly, I was standing next to him by the cash register of a roadside diner, or hearing the final note of a successful session of haggling over a used lawn mower.
Too short to see the top of his dresser as a child, I would reach up and feel along the edge until the cool metal of the clip greeted my fingertips.
The bills, sometimes few, never many, remained creased and obedient while my small hands flipped it open and shut.
Its heft felt the same now, the metal of the clip cool against my chest as I dropped it into my shirt pocket.
The old man coughed once, a rumbling hack that broke the silence in the small house, and seemed to settle a bit deeper into the simple bed. The sudden noise caused the other people gathered in the house to look down the short hall toward the room.
As his ragged breathing eased, I glanced around the room. There wasn't much left; the bed, his dresser, the small stool I sat on. A wrought-iron plant stand with some sort of cheerful and eternal form of ivy winding up from the ceramic pot at its base sat in front of the single window.
He had been giving away stuff for over a year, mostly to people who did not know him, or at least didn't know the journey he was on. We didn't begrudge him this. The plumber who came to rework the shower fixtures to a lower height had left with two full sets of carbide drill bits and an air compressor. He called me after, to ask if he should bring the stuff over to my house, but I told him no, that the old man appreciated what he had done and that he should keep it all.
His breathing was a little more labored now, the rhythm changing.
When I arrived that morning, he had been up and standing in the kitchen, and motioned for me to follow him. I steadied him down the steps, and we went into the small, one-car garage, which was also almost completely empty. He moved over to the far wall where he took down a rake.
"Here," he said, "I won't use this anymore. It's a good one. It's got the metal tines."
He walked past me and back into the house after that, and made his way to the bed where he now rested. He slept fitfully for a couple of hours, the relief from the pump temporary but welcome.
When he woke, he called me in and asked me to bring him the things atop his dresser. I gathered up a pen, a few framed photos, a baggie containing his military ribbons and a brass uniform button, a woman's small and simple gold wedding band, the money clip. He picked each item up, mentioning a name, which I wrote down on the back of an envelope. He drifted back to sleep, the money clip in his hand, not yet having spoken a name with it.
The AC in the house kicked on, and the tendrils of the ivy waved gently, stirring a fly from its spot on the windowsill.
He woke after that and quietly handed me the money clip.
"I guess I won't be spending this," he said. "It's thirty-seven dollars."
With that, he eased off quietly. I reached up and touched the money clip in my pocket, then put my hand back down to hold his as it cooled.