The Coin Whisperer
by Sarah Craft
I met Cassie as I was moving into the tiny apartment across the hall from her. The stack of boxes I carried prevented me from seeing her as she opened her door and stepped out. Of course I tried not to run over the blur of bleach blond hair tipped with teal, but the boxes tilted, the boxes tumbled and some of my things ended up on the floor.
She gasped after the initial crash and helped me pick up my things. As she picked up a well-read paperback, she paused, her eyes darkening before she handed it back to me. It was a bit strange but it wasn’t something I thought was important at the time.
I signed “Excuse me,” hoping I wouldn’t have to drag out a notebook though I knew it was unlikely anyone here recognized ASL. Her eyes widened and she signed back. I introduced myself as Paul—having decided recently to leave off the “a” in Paula—and signed I could hear perfectly well but because of a birth defect I could not talk. Cassie explained her mother had been deaf and had never learned to speak.
Maybe it was because I could actually ‘speak’ to her without the use of a pen and paper; or perhaps it was because she was right next door and I saw her in the hall or on the elevator so often, but I found myself liking her quite a bit. I listened to her frequent fights with lovers, and she seemed to ponder the heavy silence I often lived with. It wasn’t long after I moved in that we started meeting for coffee or a movie; sometimes crashing on each other’s couch after discussing music or books long after the sun went down. The first time I entered her apartment, I asked her why it smelled odd but she blamed it on the plumbing.
One evening, Cassie knocked at my door and held up a blue silk shirt in one hand and a folding chair in the other.
“We are going to the club,” she announced as she bounced in.
I tried to protest but she pushed past me to the bedroom. “Oh,” she said with a teasing edge. “You are going to need a haircut too.” She pulled her scissors out of her pocket and swung them around on her finger.
That cut my argument short. Cassie worked at a trendy salon downtown. She had promised to trim up my unruly locks for the last few weeks, but our work schedules hadn’t lined up.
“You fight dirty,” I told her.
Cassie laughed and pointed to a folding chair she had opened. “Get your shirt off.”
I froze as panic wrapped a cold hand on my mind. Cassie cocked her head to the side and asked me if anything was wrong. I shook my head, unsure if I should even try to explain my tightly wrapped breasts and the sporadic patches of chest hair. It wasn’t something that casually came up in any conversation.
“Come on,” she urged. “I want to frost your tips and I forgot my cape. Anyway you don’t have anything I haven’t seen.”
I seriously doubted that, but turned my back and unbuttoned my shirt. Sometimes, I’ve found showing someone what I was going through was a lot easier than trying to explain. Some people were shocked, others outraged. I’d lost quite a few friends because of it. I don’t know what I was expecting when I turned around and let the shirt fall to the floor.
Cassie’s eyes traveled from my navel up to the ace bandage that was wrapped tightly around my upper chest. She shrugged and patted the back of the chair. “Let’s make you look great, okay.”
I think it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
We were back at my apartment barely four hours later. The left side of my face throbbed where that jerk Kyle sucker-punched me. Cassie was emptying my ice trays into a towel for an icepack.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as she handed it to me.
I signed a thank you, wincing at the pain in my hand. My punches hadn’t been square enough and I had hit him wrong. It wasn’t the first fight I had been in, but the first time someone had sucker-punched me in a while.
Cassie sat beside me on the couch. “Who was that?”
For a moment I tried to juggle the icepack and signing before I gave up and picked up the tablet of paper that I always kept handy.
‘Disgruntled x-coworker. Got fired last week. Blames me.’ I wrote.
“Ahhh,” she replied as I moved the icepack to cover my eye. She gave me a worried glance and looked around the room a moment. “I want to show you something.” Her words were hesitant.
She stood up and dug around in her pocket and pulled out a quarter. It was a bit tarnished with what looked like red paint on one side. “Did you know everyone has a story?” she asked quietly. Her eyes took on that distant look I remembered from our first meeting. “Some are short, others long, and most just fade away over time.” She rolled the quarter over her knuckles and my eyes followed the way it danced. “But sometimes something a person carries picks up bits of their life and people like me can read those imprints.”
She flipped it around in her hand. “This belonged to a little girl. She found it on the street in front of the apartment she lived in. She was going to visit the hospital to see her mother.” Cassie cradled the coin a moment. “She told her papa about the quarter and wanted to get her mother a gift. So they stopped at a store. The girl picked out a little bear, because bears scare the bad things away. And her mom needed something to scare the bad things away.” She held it a moment longer and put the coin down on the table in front of us.
I looked at the coin then back at her, expecting her to continue. When she didn’t I wrote, ‘What happened next?’
Cassie gave me a bittersweet smile. “That’s all there is. Once the coin left her hand, it’s a blank.” She reached out and picked it back up. She pulled out a small leather pouch from around her neck and dropped it in. “Not all coins have stories. I keep the ones that do.”
I could never tell if those coins held stories or if Cassie was making it all up. There were times I believed her and times I wasn’t sure. All of them held a sense of truth: people, places, times. Some rich enough in details I could almost see what was happening. Other times, Cassie had to reach to grasp at the images and struggled to explain them. I tried a few times to verify her stories on the computer, but Cassie never gave me any names, just vague images of feelings. Metal seemed to hold the imprints more clearly, though her apartment was furnished with items with various tales. She explained that touching people didn’t have the same effect because people were always changing. Coins were the best, but they didn’t hold more than a vague imprint, as people don’t hold on to them for long.
She kept the coins with stories in her apartment, in boxes, coffee cans and plastic storage bins. She’d been saving them for a long time. The scent of coins filled the air with a sharp metallic zing, reminiscent of touching a battery with your tongue. The coins flavored her food and even the water. It never bothered her, but I think Cassie enjoyed how uncomfortable it made other people.
But her stories were our secret. Everyone else thought that it was just a collection.
“No one likes a freak,” she mumbled as she stared at her half-empty beer. “Freaks aren’t meant to be happy. Not like everyone else.”
Self accusations usually followed her using her gift. Perhaps she picked up his cell phone and read the story there. Or maybe this guy wasn’t the one she was looking for. But, the words were quick jabs to my own fragile self image. A mirror to my own thoughts about being stuck between what I was and what I wanted to be.
“Everyone can be happy,” I signed back making sure she saw my hands.
Cassie shook her head and took a sip then said. “No, not me.”
I tried to argue with her, but without a voice, all she had to do was turn away. And she did, preferring to wallow in her own pool of self pity. I got angry at that. I got up and stood before her, reaching down to gently place my hand under her chin and signed “I love you.”
Tears welled up in her eyes again, streamed down her thin face. “Of course you do.” Her voice cracked as her throat tightened.
She started crying again, and this time I cried with her, realizing that the words themselves weren’t going to be enough to convince her.
Signing can be like words on a page. The intention is there, but sometimes people just don’t realize the words have a much stronger meaning. If body language and gestures aren’t enough, even writing won’t make it clear. But I felt I had to convince her. I had to at least try.
It wasn’t long until Cassie was seeing someone else. She was so eager to love, or to find love, she pretty much jumped at the first person who caught her eye. He was nice enough at first. At least until he started pushing Cassie to move in with her. He kept giving me strange looks as though she was his property and I should back off.
As Cassie devoted herself to him, to his needs and demands, I did. I spent a lot of time on the computer. Reading and surfing the net trying to find a way to tell her what I really felt. I stumbled across various articles on physic abilities and later how to make a ring from a coin.
It sparked an idea.
I spent most of my savings on an uncirculated silver dollar. The websites warned about using newer coins as they had a higher copper content and would cause the skin to turn black from tarnish. I wanted something that didn’t have an imprint so that there would be no mistaking what I felt. I bought tools: a small hammer, a drill, bits, and polishing compound. On Saturdays when Cassie was at work at the salon, I began to practice on quarters. But I kept the silver dollar in my pocket at all times.
My first few tries were laughable. The bands were uneven and wavy. I even broke a few trying to get them thinner. The newer coins worked up quicker, but older ones with pure silver looked brighter. I set my experiments on the banisters for the kids and proudly noticed many teens and a few adults wearing them.
Then the fights began again. The months of Cassie coming home to find the freeloader watching TV when the dishes needed to be washed or the laundry taken downstairs were quickly coming to an end. The guy seemed to realize this and for a very short time, put in some effort, but it was short-lived.
After every fight she came over, crying. Blaming herself for why it wasn’t working out. I tried my best to distract her by collecting all of the coins I could, but the realization of another failed relationship weighed heavily on her. While I poured words from my fingers, it wasn’t what she wanted. It wasn’t enough. So when she left, I cradled the dollar in my hands and told her all the things that my voice couldn’t.
I slipped a note under her door inviting her to celebrate the fourth anniversary of our friendship. It was a silly thing we started and too good of an excuse to get her out of the apartment. Despite her protests, I made a reservation at a nice restaurant and got tickets to a show. If I were going to embarrass myself, I was going to do it in style.
I barely touched my plate. I didn’t expect the butterflies to crash like miniature airplanes in my stomach. The show was superb, funny though all I could do was could do was wheeze. We walked back home, Cassie’s arm though mine when I signed I wanted to pass through a park.
It was a warm night for October, and we kicked at the leaves on the ground. The fountain was dry, precautions on the upcoming winter but we sat on the edge. Cassie thanked me for the wonderful evening as I dug into my pocket for the little box.
I held it out, as pure terror gripped me.
She took it and opened it.
“Paul, you shou . . ..” she paused as she touched the ring. Her eyes became wide. She blinked several times before warmth filled them. “I . . . ” she stuttered, “I’m sorry.”
I looked quickly away, not wanting to see the rejection in her eyes.
“No,” she whispered almost in my ear. Her hand, slightly rough from her work, slid under my chin. I turned my head despite my reluctance, but couldn’t meet her face. Instead, my eyes found her other hand, the one which cradled the ring I had so painstakingly hammered and polished until it gleamed even in the dim light.
“Paul, I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “I didn’t listen.”
My hands fumbled through words, I hoped I signed, “Don’t worry about it.”
She held up the ring smiling with tears in her eyes. “Once there was a man born in the wrong body, who didn’t think anyone would ever accept who he really was. At least until he met a girl who could whisper stories locked inside of a coin . . . ”
Sarah Craft‘s work has appeared in the FISH and In Situ anthologies from Dagan Books and in Space Battles #6 from Flying Pen Press. Currently she is a slush reader for Crossed Genres and is an occasional co-host of #Sffwrtcht.