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John Lenore

The Grand Transporter stood behind the podium and gave final instructions to his flock of sixteen eager disciples. “Be joyous, my brethren. The time has come to discard our cumbersome mortal containers and be welcomed to the Next Level, the Kingdom of SuperHeaven. Our extraterrestrial guides have entered orbit around Earth and wait anxiously to escort us to the Great Mothership. But, we must be ready and worthy, brother travelers, so make certain that you have prepared completely for your journey. Our guides are kind and generous but their rules are strict. When you assume the final position for departure it is imperative you are wearing the official shoes of The Level Beyond. Nike AirZooms or AirSolas are acceptable. Converse and Reeboks are strictly forbidden. And remember, upon entering the Mothership you must present exactly seventy-six cents in U.S. currency. Only exact change will be accepted.”

“Check your passes. We will start the boarding process from the rear of the Mothership. Those with seat numbers twelve through fourteen you may file past the podium and through the portal to begin boarding at this time,” the Grand Transporter said cheerfully.

One by one the disciples approached the podium and presented their footwear and passage fee for inspection. With a nod of approval, the Grand Transporter let those with proper credentials pass through the doorway to the adjacent room where they gulped generous helpings of the “cosmic Jello”, laid on the floor and silently awaited liberation from their earthly containers.

Freddie stood aside and double-checked the coins in his hand as the line of disciples marched past. He had exactly one dollar in coins and twenty cents was in dimes. With the departure time rapidly approaching, he frantically patted his pants and shirt in search of the critical penny needed to complete the fare requirement.

Hoping that the coin would be discovered in time, Freddie took baby steps approaching the podium. When all the others had passed, Freddie proudly displayed his worn, Nike sneakers and quickly flashed the dollar in change hoping the Grand Transporter would not notice the incorrect fare. He did, of course, and shaking his head, lowered his arm to block Freddie’s entrance.

“Oh, sorry,” Freddie said in mock surprise, and attempted to pass again.
“Frederick, the fare is not about money, but a test of your integrity,” the Grand Transporter lectured. Freddie shrugged in resignation. The Grand Transporter nodded and walked through the doorway himself leaving Freddie alone in the waiting room. It was ten minutes to twelve. Freddie had ten minutes to find exact change or he would miss the ship.

He could not be left behind. After all he had endured, the dreams unfulfilled, the consuming loneliness, he finally had a satisfying way of departing the tortured web of his life and, as was his way, would fall a penny short.

Freddie looked around and, noticing no one, stepped into the departure room. The disciples were lying peacefully on the floor in neat rows, coins clutched in their hands. Freddie reached down to take a penny from the hand of a disciple in the first row who he assumed had already boarded. With eyes still shut, the disciple slapped Freddie’s hand.
“Bad idea,” Freddie thought, shaking the sting out of his hand, and returning to the assembly room.

With just seven minutes left, he remembered the green grocer down the street and dashed off to get change. He barreled through the door and laid a nickel on the counter.

“Change, please,” Freddie asked breathlessly.
The Korean woman behind the counter ignored him and continued registering another customer’s produce. Freddie waited nervously for a minute that seemed like an hour, but with just five minutes remaining pleaded desperately.
“Please, I really need five pennies.”
“No change without purchase,” the woman snapped.
Freddie snatched back the nickel and began surveying the shelves for anything that might cost less than twenty-five cents.
“Do you have anything for less than a quarter?” Freddie asked the woman.
“Just what you see on shelves.”

Freddie frantically paced the aisles, from the front of the store to the rear, searching high and low for any item that might cost less than a quarter. He found nothing.

“Are you looking for something in particular?” asked a young woman, neatly packaging flowers along the back wall.
Without interrupting his search, Freddie answered.
“It’s a little complicated to explain.”
A few fruitless moments later, he stopped and elaborated.
“See, the light from a neutron star, SGR 1806-20, 50,000 light years away, finally reached earth.”
As he spoke, Freddie’s attention gradually moved from the cheap product search to the pretty flower girl.
“Fortunately, we were able to correctly interpret that flash of light as the sign to prepare to board the Mothership for our journey to FaLa where we will discard our mortal containers and evolve to the Super Level.”

“That is so fascinating!” said the flower girl.
“And there’s more,” continued Freddie, now totally in the conversation, “The guides from the Next Level periodically plant seeds in mortal containers on Earth. My teacher, FiDo, is an evolved mortal who has selected a group of students to learn the ways of SuperHeaven and be prepared for when the ship arrives... but I’m just a penny short!”
“You have to pay a penny to ride the mother ship?” asked the flower girl.
“Actually, you need exactly seventy-six cents and I have three quarters, two dimes and a nickel,” Freddie explained sadly.
“Gee, I would gladly give you the penny, but I don’t have any change. Wouldn’t any of your fellow students lend you the money?” she asked.
“I didn’t have a chance to ask. They all boarded before me,” said Freddie. “And they probably wouldn’t have given it to me anyway, even if they had it to spare.”
“Why is that?” the flower girl asked with genuine curiosity.
“I’m not sure,” said Freddie, “I always try to be polite to people, and have them like me, but they’re never kind in return.”
“I know what you mean,” agreed the flower girl, “I only moved to this city last year and I haven’t been very successful making friends.”
“I can’t believe that,” said Freddie “you’re so pretty and sweet. Who wouldn’t want to be friendly with you?”
“Thank you so much,” blushed the flower girl, “that’s so nice. It just seems like the nicer I try to be to people the more rejection I get. It’s like they think I have some hidden motive or I’m looking to get something from them. At first I thought people were cold to me because I am Asian, but then even Asians I met were no friendlier.”
“I think people are just jealous of you,” said Freddie.

“Huimi-ya?” the woman at the cash register called out.
“Yeh!” the flower girl replied. “I think my mother wants to know who I’m talking to,” the flower girl whispered, then extended her hand to Freddie. “My name is Huimi, by the way, but everyone calls me Winnie.”
“Huimi, that’s a very pretty name,” said Freddie shaking her hand. “I’m Freddie.”
“Very nice to meet you, Freddie” said Huimi, “Do you live around here?”
“I’ve been living at the SuperHeaven temple for the last year. Before that I lived in the city for a few years. I worked in the mail room for Federated Bank but lost my job when they were bought by Trans National Bank. I couldn’t find a job for a long time so I moved back with my mom but she died last year so, here I am.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Huimi sympathetically. “You must miss her very much.”
“I don’t know. She gave me up for adoption when I was a baby and I grew up mostly in and out of an orphanage. I had a foster family for a while but they weren’t very kind. When I went out on my own I looked my mother up one day. Actually, I didn’t really have any feelings for her; I just needed some place to live.”
“Well, at least you got to know her before she died, that’s the most important thing. Everyone should know where they came from” said Huimi.

On the wall was one of the old IBM school clocks that make a loud click as each minute expires. It caught Freddie’s attention and made him aware that just three minutes remained before the Mothership deadline.

“I should really get moving,” Freddie said with enough conviction to motivate him to resume the task at hand. “I still need to get change, though.”
“Here,” said Huimi, picking a withered rose from a plastic bucket. “We can’t sell these; they’re too old and dry. Tell my mother I said she should charge you only thirteen cents. Then you can have the pennies change you need. I hope everything works out where you’re going.”
Freddie took the shriveled flower from Huimi and held it for a few moments, examining it from the dried outer petals to the bottom of the frayed and faded stem. He looked up at Huimi and warmly said “thanks”, lowered his gaze to the floor and waved goodbye weakly as he slowly moved towards the checkout counter
There was a person ahead of him at the checkout but Freddie was not so eager to leave, even though there was less than two minutes remaining. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his coins and selected a dime and a nickel to pay for the thirteen-cent dying rose. When it was his turn for service he stood motionless staring at the rose.

“How much my daughter say for the dead rose?” the woman asked.
Freddie did not respond, just kept looking closely at the rose.
“You want to buy? Maybe not, let other man by, OK?” the woman said with a measure of pity.

Freddie turned and dashed back to the flower counter. Huimi was gone. He looked in all directions but did not see her. He looked down and found a bucket with bright, fresh roses and a sign that read seventy-five cents. He lifted one out and raced down the aisles in search of the pretty flower girl
When he dashed passed the checkout the woman shouted, “Hey you pay for that!” to which Freddie slapped all his coins down on the counter and continued his frantic search.

“Huimi!” he shouted as he passed each aisle, “Huimi!”
“What, what?” Huimi asked anxiously as she grabbed his arm from behind.
“This is for you,” said Freddie as the clock clicked twelve.

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