Ezmeralda resented her birthday. It irritated her the same way the hole in her shoe did, reminding her every step that good soles were a luxury she couldn’t afford.
Her birthday did the same, reminding her that she should be throwing a party, receiving presents, taking a day off. All the advertisements and shows said so.
She didn’t take the day off. Ezmeralda spent it wriggling into her waders the way she always did, settling into her water-bike, and working the kelp fields. “Combing,” they called it, because the kelp strands grew better if they weren’t all tangled up.
At the end of the day, her muscles ached, her skin itched, salt caked her hair, and she still had a three-mile walk home. Despite the ordeal, thinking of the walk made her smile. It had been on her walk home a couple months ago that she found something buried in the salty mud beside the road. A two thousand-dollar bill. Enough to pay her rent for a month. Enough to buy new shoes. Enough to buy fish. Her mouth had watered at the thought.
Ezmeralda had done none of these things. She saved it, put the bill under the loose cap of a metal fencepost out front of her building. She was sure no one else knew about the spot. That bill had kept her going. Changed her. She saved more, saved everything she could. She studied textbooks she rescued from the recycling yards, learning about business and economics. More than a month’s rent, the money was a symbol of her opportunity to change.
The windows to her room were dark as she approached from the back. Strange, roommates always got back before she did. Had the power company cut them off again? But she didn’t see candlelight either.She approached the door slowly, unlocked it as quietly as she could, and—“SURPRISE!”
Her roommates Ikuyo, Urbek, and Murray flipped on the lights and cheered her return. Ezmeralda forced herself to smile and accept their cheer. They’d meant well, and—was that grilled salmon they were herding her toward?
“But, no! We can’t afford this!”
“We can today,” cried Urbek. “Urbek got lucky,” Murray said.
Ikuyo chimed in. “Someone crashed into the fence out front.”
“Real hit and run,” Urbek said. “Fence’s mangled. I’m sure the landlord won’t bother fixing it.”
“But in all that mess,” Ikuyo continued, “Urbek found a two thousand-dollar bill! We all agreed to use it for your birthday.”
“We know how much you miss fish,” Murray said. “Of course, we each get a bite, too.
“Tears of anguish mingled with her broad smile, which wasn’t feigned as she’d expected. Her friends loved her. She really wanted the money, but they loved her.
She could keep saving. Losing the money didn’t end her ambitions. It just made her want to lift her friends up with her.