Photograph by Asimina Nteliou

The first hundred dollars had been bad enough. But when the second hundred dollars followed exactly one week later, Carita thought she would die of guilt and shame and fear. And worst of all, that she would die an unconfessed sinner too.

Here was how it happened.

It had been on a Friday night after work. On Fridays, Carita was always home late because the check cashing store stayed open until eight o’clock on payday. Then after that, Carita had to walk twenty minutes home and pick up dinner to boot.

Meanwhile, school let out at three-thirty. That left Robbie and Jesse a full five hours alone and unsupervised every Friday.

In order to keep the boys busy, Carita set them a long list of Friday-night chores. They had to wash the breakfast dishes and set the table for dinner, pick up all the clutter around the apartment, take the trash down to the dumpster, and finally wash and dry their school uniforms in the old machine in the basement.

So if Carita ever got home on a Friday night and found the table not set or the school uniforms not dry, that meant the boys would have to account for where they had been and what they had been doing.

Robbie was eleven. Jesse was seven.

But that particular Friday, everything seemed fine. When Carita got home, she put the paper bag with the fast food hamburgers and french fries on the kitchen table and then popped off her pinching old shoes and shuffled into her bedroom to put on her soft slippers.

She surveyed the apartment as she did so:

The table was set. The sink was clean. The waste baskets were empty. The week’s clutter of mail circulars and schoolbooks and video games and candybar wrappers was picked up. A pair of clean, dry uniforms were hanging on the boys’ closet door.

Everything looked exactly as it was supposed to look.

Except for when Carita got to her bedroom and put on her slippers and started taking off her bracelets and earrings. As she reached for the jewelry box to put her jewelry away, she stopped short and a kind of thrill of surprise ran through her.

A crisp hundred dollar bill lay on top of the jewelry box.

There was no mistaking what it was, and no mistaking that it was real. Carita had worked at the check cashing store for two years, and she had worked as a teller at a bank for almost five years before that. Until one morning she had arrived at the bank to find the doors locked and chained and a sign posted in the window saying that the branch had closed and the last paycheck was on the way —

But that was an anger and disappointment for another time.

The point was that Carita had seen plenty of hundred dollar bills before. She had seen and touched and smelled them. She had handled whole packs of them, and she had striped more than she could remember with the counterfeit-detecting marker pen.

She knew what it was. And she knew it was real.

At first, Carita was afraid that she had brought it home with her by accident. That somehow she had put the bill into her coat pocket along with her keys. Or that somehow one had fallen into the sleeve of her blouse, or become stuck to her with static electricity.

But who could seriously believe something like that? In her seven years of working a cash drawer, nothing like that had ever happened to anyone that Carita knew.

Money didn’t just jump into pockets or down sleeves. Those were the kind of excuses that thieves invented when they got caught red-handed. And Carita knew that whether it could be proved or not, everyone would think the same thing of her. That she had stolen it.

And Carita knew the horror in that word.

If anything, it should have been moral horror. Biblical horror. Right-from-wrong horror. For Carita had certainly seen the wrath of God at work before. Pride goeth before the fall, and What goes around comes around, and Cheaters never prosper. She had seen it all many times.

But Carita also knew the forgiving power of Christ. She knew that she had been redeemed, and she knew what she had to do to get right with God when she needed to. That was why the priest sat in his confessional every Saturday afternoon, between three and four-thirty, dispensing absolution with the simple words: “Go and sin no more.”

No, she was gripped by a different horror than that. A more temporal horror.

Carita knew full well that there would be no forgiveness at the check cashing store. No absolution and no second chance. The employee handbook and the stockholders and the regulations of the Federal Reserve would not allow it. They allowed only for a phone call to the police.

And even if the police didn’t find enough evidence to charge her, Carita knew she would still be fired just for the suspicion. Then rumors would spread around the neighborhood. She would become known as a thief. A thief who was dumb enough to get caught by the store, but smart enough to wriggle away from the law.

That was the horror that ran over Carita at the sight of the money. Not a holy horror of the wrath of God. But a petty and sordid horror of losing her job and her reputation for honesty. A worldly horror. A shameful horror. A pitiful, worthless horror when compared to the value of her immortal soul.

But Carita’s heart beat rapidly all the same.

On the other hand, Carita’s cash drawer at the store had balanced on the first count that night, just as it did almost every night. How could she have taken the bill from work — whether accidentally or purposefully — if her drawer had balanced?

The answer was that she couldn’t have. Not without doing a lot of other things to cover up the loss. But where else could the money have come from?


Carita called her son’s name nervously. If she hadn’t brought the bill into the house, then someone else must have… One of the boys…

“Yeah, ma?”

The answering shout came from the kitchen. The boys were probably sitting already with hamburgers on their plates, laughing and talking and sneaking french fries as they waited for Carita to join them for grace.

Carita stepped to the doorway of the bedroom. “Can you come down here, baby?” She said it slowly, trying to keep her voice from sounding accusatory or angry or panicked until the boy had had a chance to say whatever he had to say.

There was a scrape of a chair in the kitchen, and the sound of stocking feet slapping the linoleum. Then Robbie was there, standing in the lighted hallway just outside the bedroom door.


His voice was already becoming a man’s voice. It wasn’t one yet. But it would be soon.

Carita’s heart tightened again.

“What is it, ma?” asked Robbie. Looking up at her brightly with innocent boys’ eyes, seemingly without a scheme or design in his mind.

“Did you…” Carita began slowly. Her hand was trembling as she held up the bill. “Did you put this on my jewelry box?”

Robbie looked at the hundred dollar bill.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Yeah!”

Carita continued to look at him. It felt like she couldn’t breathe or talk. Robbie’s eyes got bigger.

“I mean, yes,” he said, correcting himself. “Yes, I did, ma.”

“That’s an awful lot of money,” said Carita huskily. She was running through a list of bewildering possibilities in her head. Where could an eleven year-old boy get a crisp new hundred dollar bill? The options quickly went from bad to worse. For a moment, Carita almost wished that she really had stolen it herself. “Where did you get it, baby?”

“I found it,” said Robbie.

“Found it?”

“Yeah,” said Robbie. “I mean, yes. Walking home from school.”

Carita nodded slowly. Please Lord, let that be the truth, she prayed. “You didn’t see anybody around who might have dropped it?”

Robbie paused a second, as if thinking, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “Just me and Jesse.”

“It was just there on the sidewalk,” said Carita. “A hundred dollar bill just there on the sidewalk, with nobody around, and nobody who lost it, and you just bent down and picked it up?”

Robbie paused again, and then nodded. “Yes, ma.” Then he smiled and shrugged. “That’s exactly how it was. Was that what you wanted to know?”

And though Carita nodded and said, “Thanks, baby,” still her heart felt like it was frozen inside a block of jagged ice.

Carita spent the next week waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, she had never heard of anybody finding a hundred dollar bill without somebody else losing one.

So she waited.

She didn’t tell anybody about the money. If she had won a hundred dollars on a scratch-off ticket, she would have told everyone she knew. Or she would have once most of the money had been safely spent, anyway.

But it didn’t feel right or smart to talk about this, even if that was the natural thing to do. Instead, she put the money away in her jewelry box, folded up tight in the same envelope that held her engagement ring and wedding band. And she waited to hear if anybody in the neighborhood had lost anything like what Robbie had found.

But two, three, four days passed. And nobody said anything about it.

If telling everyone was the natural thing to do after getting a hundred dollars, it was twice as natural to do it after losing a hundred dollars. So if whoever lost it wasn’t talking about it, then that meant they didn’t want to admit they had lost the money. Or that they had had it in the first place.

Which meant the money was bad money. But what could Carita do about that?

She knew who the players were in the neighborhood, of course. Everybody knew them. But she couldn’t very well go up to them, one by one, and ask them each if they had lost a hundred dollar bill. Not even if she wanted to.

Eventually she decided that things would be okay if nobody knew that it had been Robbie who found the money. If only she knew for sure that nobody had seen him pick up the bill, then she would know that nobody would come looking for him to give it back.

She questioned Robbie and Jesse both again, more closely this time. She asked if they had told anybody else about the money. Robbie had answered brightly, and Jesse distractedly. But both said again that nobody had been around and that they hadn’t told anybody.

Carita told them not to talk about it. That part made her feel worst of all.

But after four, five, six days had passed, still nobody seemed to be looking for the money. She began to wonder if maybe somebody from outside the neighborhood had lost it while passing through. Or maybe whoever lost it hadn’t even noticed. Or they had so much money that they considered a loss of one hundred dollars to be of no importance.

Carita didn’t think she knew anybody who fit the last description. It was true that there were people who would not bother to bend down to pick up a penny if they dropped one. But could anybody really feel the same about a whole hundred dollars? And if so, wasn’t it better to put the money in the hands of someone who would really appreciate it and use it wisely?

And truth be told, Carita really could use the money. Each day as she squeezed out of her shoes, she found herself thinking about the forty-five dollar pair of flats that she knew were on remainder at the discount store. She hadn’t had a new pair in over a year, and hers were wearing through in more than one place. But with needing to buy new school supplies on top of everything else, Carita hadn’t had any chance to save up.

Why, this week she was already out of toilet paper again. And the coffee was getting low… But she would need to keep a little to get something nice for the boys as well.

After all, Robbie had given the money to her. He could have spent it on a new video game and never told her about it. But he had brought it to her instead.

That was the thought that finally made Carita feel better.

On Thursday morning, Carita opened her jewelry box and took out the hundred dollar bill. She unfolded it and smoothed it out, and then she slipped it into her pocket.

She couldn’t spend a hundred dollar bill anywhere in the neighborhood. Not without being sure that nobody was looking for it, and Carita couldn’t think of any way to be sure about that.

Besides, the discount store wouldn’t even take it. They had a sign up at the register saying no hundred dollar bills and no fifty dollar bills. Carita had seen that sign so many times before that she could picture it clearly in her mind. But somehow she had never associated it with herself. She had always associated it with other people, with counterfeiters and drug dealers.

But now the sign was suddenly relevant to her. It was a shock to think that way.

Of course, Carita could have taken the hundred dollar bill to the bank where she had her savings account to change it. But ever since the branch in the neighborhood had closed down, that meant a bus ride or a forty minute walk in worn out shoes. How much easier just to make the change at work…

Carita had to keep telling herself that she wasn’t taking money from the check cashing store. She wasn’t stealing anything. She wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Except that she wasn’t supposed to make change for herself. If she needed change, she was supposed to get it from the other girl or from the manager. But Carita didn’t want either of them asking questions about where the money had come from, though she wasn’t exactly sure why. It just didn’t seem like a good thing to talk about. It seemed better kept as a secret.

So Carita had decided that she would just wait until someone handed her a fist full of disorganized bills to pay off a large loan. That usually happened at least once a day. Then, as she was counting and organizing the money, she would slip in her hundred dollar bill and take out an equal amount of money in twenties or tens.

There couldn’t be any crime in that. Nobody was being hurt.

But still it made her heart pound as she finally determined to do it, fumbling with a customer’s wad of moist bills, peeling them apart and sorting them into piles. The new hundred dollar bill looked out of place with the other bills she was handling. She looked up at the customer and then darted a glance to the girl next to her, and then to the manager sitting in his cage in the back.

Nobody was paying any attention. Nobody was watching as she made the switch.

Carita knew that there was a security camera pointed right at her station, but she didn’t know if it was even real or not. And if it was, surely nobody would look at the tapes unless there was a reason to do so. And as long as her drawer balanced at the end of the day, there would be no reason.

Face flushed and hand shaking, Carita handed the customer a receipt. As he shuffled off, she pocketed the change she had made. Three twenty dollar bills and four tens. She counted it three times to make sure she hadn’t shortchanged the store.

And later that night, after balancing her drawer, she walked home in a new pair of shoes.

All day Friday, Carita wrestled back and forth with herself whether she needed to confess to a priest what she had done.

She had spent all the money on Thursday night, but the guilty feeling hadn’t gone away so easily. After all, she didn’t know who the money had belonged to, and she hadn’t made much attempt to find out. Even Robbie’s story of how he found the money sounded a little too convenient. She didn’t want to call the boy a liar, but he hadn’t been forthcoming either. Carita started to wonder why she had just accepted his story without getting a lot more details.

By the time she reached home that evening, Carita had decided that she hadn’t wanted to know details.

She hadn’t wanted Robbie to tell her more, so she hadn’t pressed him. Instead, she had wanted the money. Or more accurately, she had wanted the things that she knew the money could buy. She had coveted. And her coveting had overruled her usually good sense about right and wrong.

It was a good thing, thought Carita, that the next day was Saturday. She could go to confession and get her absolution and her penance. Then she could forget the whole event, safe from the retribution of God or man.

Or so she had resolved when she returned home that Friday night. But then she had gone into her bedroom to put her slippers on (her feet not aching for the first time in months!) and she had stopped short, her heart seizing up in terror even before she was consciously aware of what she was looking at.

It was another new crisp hundred dollar bill sitting on her jewelry box.

For a long time Carita stood at her dresser, just looking down at it. Her whole body was shaking. Her scalp was tingling. Her stomach was hollow. In that moment, she felt a deep and unknowing terror.

As well as a firm conviction that somehow she was dealing with something that was actually evil.

Pride goeth before the fall, she remembered. And, What goes around comes around.

Carita didn’t call Robbie or Jesse. She didn’t ask for an explanation. Instead, she quickly hid the hundred dollar bill in the envelope in her jewelry box.

She didn’t know what to say when she went out to sit down for dinner. The shoes she had bought for herself stood by the door. The big Hershey bars she had bought for Robbie and Jesse sat on the kitchen counter with a single square (last night’s dessert) removed from each of them.

Carita mumbled awkwardly through grace, the words sounding hollow and meaningless.

Yet, Robbie and Jesse looked and acted no different. She knew, somehow, that Robbie would say nothing about the money. And he didn’t. But she also knew that if she dared to ask, he would just say that he found it. Just like he had last week.

“Are you feeling okay, ma?” asked Robbie suddenly, as he munched on a few limp french fries.

Carita weighed her answer. “No, baby,” she said slowly.

But all she could think was that surely this evil had not entered her house of its own accord. No, someone must have invited it inside. And the only one that could have done that was herself.

Robbie and Jesse were children yet. They couldn’t even sign a library card, let alone a deal with the devil.

No, it had been Carita’s own cavalier attitudes. The unreflecting way she had let herself be guided by her covetousness, and then the way she had tried to make a virtue of her resolution to wash it out two days later at confession.

She had taken the mercy of God for granted. Sinning with one hand and claiming forgiveness with the other. Imagining her absolution even before she had finished disposing of the money. With a sense of repugnance of herself, Carita realized she had been treating Christ’s ultimate sacrifice like a vending machine. It was a slap in the face of the Lord!

And worst of all, she had done it all through the vessel of her child. She had called that evil down into her home through him. And was he still innocent of it?

“No, baby,” Carita said again. “I’m not feeling well at all.”

When Carita entered the confessional on Saturday afternoon, she chose the side with the screen and knelt down in the dim light there. An old worn crucifix stared down at her from the wall next to the screen. The wood on Jesus’s feet and head was worn smooth and shiny, where it had probably been touched or kissed a thousand times.

Had that happened here, Carita wondered, in the confessional? One thousand sinners each kissing the feet of the crucified Christ once? Or had the crucifix belonged to someone else first — some zealot of a nun or a monk, perhaps, who had felt the weight of sin like a physical burden. A single woman or man who had kissed His feet a thousand times with the same single pair of lips —

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Carita began at last. “My last confession was four months ago.”

“Yes,” said the priest from the other side of the screen. Then he didn’t say anything else.

Carita searched for the words for what she wanted to say. She had brought the second hundred dollar bill with her, as if it were a piece of evidence that she planned to present in court. But she wasn’t sure how to start talking about it. Even though she was eaten up with worry about the evil that seemed to be sniffing around the edges of her life — about where the money was coming from, about how Robbie was really getting it, about what it meant and what was behind it —

“I’m always nervous how to begin,” said Carita at last, even though that wasn’t true at all. She ordinarily had no trouble beginning her confessions.

“It’s all right,” said the priest kindly. “Would you be more comfortable sitting over here with me? You don’t have to use the screen if you don’t want to. A lot of people find it intimidating.”

“Oh, no,” said Carita. “Oh, no — “

Probably the priest thought her very old-fashioned or very simple-minded or very superstitious. But Carita was simply ashamed. She had the feeling that she had never really confessed before at all. Not any real sin, not really. And now that she had something real to say, she didn’t seem to be able to get it out.

“Well,” said the priest, “have you come here to confess anything in particular? Something that has been weighing on your mind recently?”

“Yes — ” began Carita. “It’s about money — “

And slowly, she started to talk. She started at the beginning, telling the priest how Robbie had found the first hundred dollar bill, and what she had done with it after he had given it to her. She felt she was doing a poor job expressing what was wrong about it. How guilty she had felt about it, and why she felt that way. And how her expectations of forgiveness had made her dismiss her worries.

But somehow she didn’t seem to have the words for that part of it. She could say what had happened and what she had done. But she couldn’t figure out how to explain the moral side of it, or how to explain how unsettled she had been the night before at dinner.

She hoped that the priest would understand it himself. But he didn’t seem to.

“Well,” he said at last in response, “that’s an unusual story. But I don’t think that most people would consider it a sin. I suppose you could have taken the money to the police, but very likely they would have given it back to you…”

The priest was silent a moment, and then he chuckled.

“You know, if you read the Old Testament, there are some verses that have to do with the proper ways of acquiring money. The ancient Israelites valued hard work, and were suspicious of wealth that derived from what they considered idleness. That’s one of the reasons they were forbidden to charge interest when making loans to each other. And it’s one of the reasons that a lot of Christians today still consider gambling a sin.”

“Usury,” said Carita.

She knew about that already, of course. She had read the Old Testament. She had worked in banking for seven years. It had not escaped her notice.

Neither had the policies or the exorbitant fees of the check-cashing store, for that matter. She knew well enough that the payday loans were structured in a way to keep the customers coming back month after month, so they could never fully escape their debt…

But where else was she supposed to work? And, for that matter, where else were the customers supposed to go? There hadn’t been a real bank in the neighborhood for two years now. At least the check-cashing store would give people money when they needed it.

And were real banks really any better, anyway? The check-cashing store was owned by the same “real bank” that Carita had used to work for. The one that had fled the neighborhood and left the check-cashing store as the only option for banking services, where people had to pay higher interest and fees, with less risk to the stockholders. Was that really a coincidence?

And wasn’t it also the fault of the “real banks” that whole blocks of houses now stood vacant and neglected? Just a ten-minute walk away, Carita knew of whole streets foreclosed and abandoned, hundreds of dreams shattered in the fallout of what they called the financial crisis.

But she didn’t say any of that. Just the single word. Usury. And the priest only chuckled again in response. To him it was an ancient peccadillo, a quaint squeamishness about money-getting that the modern world had grown out of back in the Enlightenment.

“I admit, I don’t get many confessions from usurers these days,” he said. “It’s a high standard for those of us who have to live in the world, and the Church recognizes that. If you are truly concerned, then you have to look honestly into your own heart.”

Carita shook her head on her side of the screen. She barely listened as the priest continued.

“You may not know where the money came from, but you do know what kind of power or influence this money has had over your own life. Did it make you act differently or feel differently? Did it come between you and God’s plans for you? Did you use the money in a way that God wanted you to?” The priest paused. “Those are the important questions. Does that help?”

“Yes, Father,” mumbled Carita. But really she was just waiting for the priest to be finished.

The more the priest had talked, the more Carita was sure that there was more to it than just how she felt and how her relationship with God had been affected. There was something else that the priest wasn’t seeing. Something bigger.

Only on the way out of church did Carita realize that she hadn’t even mentioned the second hundred dollar bill. Or even the fact that it had happened again. No doubt the priest would have seen something wrong in that. But she didn’t want to talk to him anymore. Instead she stopped at the collections box.

Carefully, Carita took the hundred dollar bill out of her pocket. Then she jammed it angrily into the slot in the box until it disappeared completely inside.

Then she stood and waited, but no puff of sulfurous smoke wafted up out of the slot.

Carita sighed. Nothing had been vanquished and nothing had been solved. She didn’t even feel less guilty. But at least the money was out of Carita’s hands. And with it, any temptation to do anything with it.

For now.

In odd moments at work over the next week, Carita found her hand stealing away to her calculator and punching in numbers. She did it almost without her willing it to happen. She would look over suddenly and see her hand on the calculator, figuring, always the same numbers.

One hundred dollars. Times. Fifty-two weeks. Equals.

Five-thousand two-hundred dollars even.

It wasn’t very much money at all. The three drawers at the check-cashing store held more than that between them, and she watched them all counted out at the end of every day.

On the other hand, it was a great deal of money. It was more than the drop in wages Carita had taken when she had moved from the bank to the check cashing store. And it would take almost ten years of three percent raises for her to make that much extra money on her own.

By then, Robbie would be twenty-one. Jesse would be seventeen.

If she continued to get raises. If she continued to be employed.

Then Carita typed five-thousand two-hundred dollars into the calculator. Times. Ten years. Equals.

Carita sat back and chewed on her lip. How much was enough to sell her soul to the devil? No amount, of course. That was the automatic answer.

But how much was enough to make her seriously consider it? How much was enough to make her pause for a minute or two?

Thinking about even that little bit of money, she could already see the trajectory of her life bending ever so slightly away from its current curve. She could see it shifting just a little bit to the right, then reaching up and away, the difference growing greater with every passing week, every passing year.

It didn’t mean a new life. It meant only a better shot at the life she was already working for. It meant breathing room, and softer landings, and second chances. It meant that one bad break didn’t need to be the last bad break for Robbie or Jesse.

So again, she wondered: how much was enough to sell her soul to the devil? And how much was enough to make her seriously consider it—?

As the week passed and Friday drew closer, Carita knew that she was on the cusp of a crisis.

For the past two Fridays, money had appeared on her jewelry box. Money that Robbie had said he had put there. And if she didn’t do anything about it, then Carita knew that the same money would appear on her jewelry box again this Friday — and then the next Friday, and the one after that, and the one after that.

And even if she were strong enough to keep stuffing the money into the church collections box every week (which Carita doubted), that still didn’t fix anything.

It would still mean that she was taking the money and disposing of it. Giving it to the church might salve her own conscience, but it didn’t deal with the problem at the source. It meant continuing not to ask questions. Continuing to be ignorant of where those hundred dollar bills came from and whether anybody else was losing because of it.

And, more importantly, being ignorant of what exactly Robbie was losing or risking by getting the money. Because he wasn’t just finding it. He was getting it.

Robbie wouldn’t be a boy forever, either. Even if he was innocent now, that couldn’t last. And Carita knew that there had been younger boys than Robbie sat down in the back of patrol cars in handcuffs. And she had no doubt that exactly the same thing would happen to Robbie too, if he were caught holding or standing lookout for the corner players.

Because that had to be where it was coming from —

(But if it was, then how was Robbie still getting all his chores done? How had she not heard any warnings about him from anyone in the neighborhood? And why did he keep giving the money to her instead of using it himself—?)

Or maybe the money was simply materializing out of thin air on her jewelry box. God wasn’t the only one who worked in mysterious ways, Carita knew. There were other forces too.

(But then why would Robbie claim responsibility? If the capital-D Devil really were testing her, then what could Robbie possibly have to do with it? This struggle against temptation could only be intended for her alone. God gave up Job to the Devil’s tests, but He would never do that to a child — !)

More and more, Carita began to think of Friday as the coming day of crisis. In all capital letters even. The Coming Day of Crisis.

And too, she found herself musing on old memories from her girlhood. Memories of being in church on Sundays, when the silver-haired pastor emeritus had used to preach his rambling homilies. She had sat each week ramrod straight in the pew, her eyes wide open, trembling with excitement as he had talked quickly on, disclosing what seemed like forbidden secrets and arcane knowledge: the orders and powers of angels, and the physical realities of the resurrection of the dead, and the history of the fall of Lucifer —

And also the possession of souls by the devil and his demons.

Oppression, possession, obsession. The three stages of demonic influence. Decades later, Carita still remembered the fear and confusion she had felt in hearing about such things —

About the signs that you could use to tell if you were under diabolical influence, and what to do to exorcise the stain —

No! She wouldn’t think about that. Not yet. But she would have to do something, and she would have to do it soon.

Before Friday.

“Baby boy,” Carita asked Wednesday night when she and Robbie were alone, “I wanted to ask you something…”

“Yeah, ma?” asked Robbie. “What is it?”

“Did you put any more money on my jewelry box last week?”

Carita closed her eyes as she waited for the answer. She clenched her right fist tight, wishing she had remembered to get out her rosary to arm herself for the confrontation. Imagining the dull pain that the edges of the plastic cross would have made in her curled palm.

Dear Blessed Mother, she prayed, let it be me and not him.

“You mean after the first time?” Robbie seemed to think. “Yeah, I did.”

Carita opened her eyes again, blinking rapidly, trying not to let the worry and strain show.

“Well, that was very nice,” Carita said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “But where did you get it, baby?”

“I found it.”

“Again?” Carita tried to sound joking, to tease a different answer out of him. “That’s what you said the first time, Robbie. How could you find a hundred dollars by accident two weeks in a row?”

“Well,” said the boy slowly, “maybe it was just a coincidence?”

The last word came out less like a question and more like a pleading. Like he wanted her to reassure him that it was all right. That he was doing okay by giving her the money.

And though Carita didn’t want to, she stared hard back at him. She remembered something from those decades-old homilies. Something about the signs of possession.

Night terrors, changes in personality, unexplained cuts and bruises, talking in foreign languages —

The sounds of pigs in the walls —

(Carita almost erupted in a bout of hysterical laughter at that one. Such an absurd, specific, fantastical detail!)

And mysterious, almost supernatural coincidences —

A chill ran down Carita’s spine and started to spread throughout her body. But she forced the smile to stay on her lips. She forced the tremor to stay out of her hands.

“Where did you find it?” she asked. “Was it the same place both times?”

“I don’t remember.” Robbie’s eyes were wide, suddenly frightened.

“Please, baby,” said Carita. She could hear the edge of panic start to creep into her own voice now, but she didn’t know how to keep it out anymore. “Could you show me, do you think? If we walked along the way to school together — ?”

But Robbie only shook his head harder and harder, shaking and shaking against the questions that beat against his ears. “I don’t remember, ma,” he said. “I don’t remember!”

Carita wanted to clasp the boy in her arms and tell him it was okay. She remembered her own fumbling explanations to the priest in the confessional. Something about this damned money made it impossible to talk about openly, honestly — ! But she had to press on. She had to push the boy until he cracked.

“What if I asked Jesse — ” she began.

At that Robbie looked up at her, his eyes flashing bright. “Don’t!” he said. “Jesse doesn’t know anything!”

“Oh, baby,” cried Carita at last, no longer able to say another word. “Oh, my baby boy — !”

All day Thursday, Carita pleaded and begged with the other girl to switch a Friday morning shift for Saturday. She couldn’t get a Friday afternoon off for love or money, not with the payday checks to take care of. But she could come in a few hours late if she worked a whole Saturday shift instead.

It wasn’t a trade she would ordinarily make. But as The Coming Day of Crisis loomed closer, Carita felt herself growing desperate.

And her Friday morning plan really was a plan of desperation.

All she could think to do was to wait for Robbie and Jesse to leave for school and then follow them at a distance to see if anything happened that would shed light on things.

Carita knew it was practically hopeless, and she felt dispirited as she let herself out of the apartment after the boys. There was hardly any time left to them before school to get into trouble anyway. But neither could she sit back and do nothing.

The walk to school was fifteen minutes through a series of fading neighborhoods. Along the way, the boys hooked up with a noisy pack of six or seven other children. And before the end of the walk, Carita was glad that they had. The last leg of the journey passed through what seemed to be a practically abandoned street — every house boarded up, gang tags scrawled across the porches, and an air of desolation and sadness hanging over the place.

Carita paused for a moment at the end of the last long empty block, suddenly made more self-conscious by the lack of activity. Nobody else was on the streets. Nobody that the kids might meet or talk to. Nobody to give them anything, let alone hundred dollar bills.

Carita waited until the kids trickled inside the school gate a quarter mile ahead, just before the warning bell. Then she hurried quickly down the empty street after them, a cold wind blowing fiercely at her heels.

“A deal with the devil?”

It was the school’s principal who asked the question, two hours later, in her office. Her name was Sister Angela and she was no more than five feet tall. She had an iron-hard look about her mouth and hawkish nose that Carita remembered well from the sisters she had known as a girl. But the effect in Sister Angela was softened by a surprising look of kindness and humor in her eyes.

She was dressed in a sweater and skirt, with a short navy blue veil enclosing her hair — the only remnant of the traditional sister’s habit that Sister Angela still wore. At the moment, she seemed to be struggling to empathize with Carita without encouraging too much what she must have considered a wild story.

“You mean that literally?” she asked.

Carita nodded. She had had more success in telling her story to the principal than she had to the priest. Perhaps because it had been almost a spur-of-the-moment decision to seek out Sister Angela, and then another spur-of-the-moment decision to unburden herself.

And somehow, having done so, she felt saner already. As if in simply putting her fears into words, she had convinced herself at least of their reality. It was hardly a comforting change in perspective, but it was certainly a galvanizing one.

“Yes, I think so,” Carita answered. “Things like that do happen, don’t they?”

Sister Angela looked thoughtful, her mouth puckered tightly. Then she shook her head. “I remember the priest who took my vows was a big one for the Devil. He spoke of him as though they had been acquaintances.” Here, Sister Angela paused, arching her eyebrows ironically. “Rest his soul, and no disrespect intended to the old goat — either one of them.

“But I never could look at things that way. I never could see demons as anything more than metaphor. The world, I can understand. The flesh, even better. But the devil?” Sister Angela shook her head again. “He might work through human agents, I suppose. But then again — I never met a human yet who needed the devil’s help to sin.”

“I’m not sure I understand, Sister — “

Sister Angela smiled. “Forgive me. What I mean to say is that there is doubtless something perfectly ordinary at the heart of this. You can be sure.”

Carita frowned. “I wish I could believe that,” she said. “Or I think I wish I could. It would make things simpler, in a way. I’m sure I could get Robbie away from bad men, one way or another — “

Sister Angela smiled indulgently. “Mothers have been saying the same thing for thousands of years — since as long as there have been sons, I suspect. But do you have any idea who these bad men might be? It seems to me that’s the place to start.”

But Carita only looked up and shrugged. She didn’t know what to say to that.

The children were outside for morning recess by the time Carita left the school. She had not wanted to look in on Robbie and Jesse in their classrooms. It was bad enough that she had followed them to school, she felt, without embarrassing them further.

But she did walk along next to the playground fence with Sister Angela on her way out, hoping to catch a glimpse of them among the children playing tag or touch football.

At first Carita couldn’t see anything of either of the boys, but there was so much movement and so many children. Sister Angela was telling her about the perfect attendance and punctuality records that both the boys had at the school, which only raised more questions in Carita’s mind about when these “bad men” could be getting at her boy —

And then suddenly, Carita wasn’t listening anymore.

Instead, she had started forward, leaving Sister Angela behind. Running a little ways ahead along the fence. Carita didn’t shout or scream. She ran in silence, her feet crunching the gravel as she tried to get on the other side of the fence. Tried to get a better look across the playground.

For she had seen Robbie. And he wasn’t in the playground where he was supposed to be. He had wriggled out of a gap in the fence next to a tree on the far side, and he was already disappearing around a corner and down one of the empty abandoned streets.

“Sister — !” called Carita, not stopping to look back or see if the principal was following her.

“I saw him!” came the call from behind, then the sound of Sister Angela shrilly blowing on a whistle. But whatever else Sister Angela might be doing, Carita didn’t stop to see.

She ran on, her heart pounding hard. She felt that she had come to the crisis point. Not that night. Not when she came home from work. Now, this moment. This would be when she would learn what had really been happening — and either she would save Robbie, or she would lose him forever.

But coming around the same corner where Robbie had disappeared a moment earlier, Carita’s heart froze a second time.

It wasn’t just Robbie. Running along ahead of him, down the very middle of the vacant street, was Jesse too.

But at that moment, before Carita had a chance to think or do anything more, Robbie emerged from behind a tree along the sidewalk, stepping backwards as he looked up at a boarded-up old church.

And Carita could not stop fast enough. Could not dive aside off the path. Instead she could only windmill her arms and shout in alarm as she ran straight into her son, falling to ground half on top of him at the bottom of the steps to the church.

Even one week later, the memory of what happened inside the church would seem impossible to Carita. It felt more like an allegory or a parable than something that had really happened to her. But an allegory without a point. A parable without a lesson.

But that was perhaps the effect of the closing of the chapter and the ultimate breaking of the weeks of strain. Of knowing that the test would not be repeated, and that whether she had failed or passed, it was now over.

But what she did remember was this.

First, she had gotten up off of Robbie, disentangling herself from the pile of his lanky limbs, now skinned and covered with grit from the sidewalk. Then she had helped him up, though her own head was throbbing with the echo of the impact.

Then she remembered that she was furious at the boy, especially for mixing Jesse up in things too.

“Where is he?” she demanded. “Where did you take my baby?”

But Robbie stared back, his face white and drawn, child-like fear in his eyes. He stammered some denial and looked dumbly toward the church. And instantly, Carita had realized that he had not led Jesse to the place. Robbie had merely followed.

Carita’s face turned hard. She squared off against the empty church as though she were ready to take it apart brick by brick. She ran up the steps to haul on the heavy wooden doors, but they were sealed tight, heavy chains looped around the door handles and padlocked.

“Who’s in there with him?” asked Carita, her voice barely recognizable. (In her memory, it sounded to her like she was speaking with somebody else’s voice.) “What do you want with my baby?”

Then there was a gap in her memory.

The next thing that Carita could remember was being inside the church. A side door swung on busted hinges behind her. Broken glass crunched under her feet. Empty malt liquor bottles and a dirty blanket occupied one end of the hallway. Through the other end, Carita pushed open another door to the church itself.

But it wasn’t really a church anymore. It was merely the husk of one.

The pews had been unbolted from the floor and stacked against the side walls. The carpets had all been taken up, and the statuary had all been taken down. Pale spots at regular intervals marked the places on the walls where the Stations of the Cross had been affixed. The place where the crucifix should have been hanging in the sanctuary was just an eerie blank.

The altar was gone entirely too, as well as the tabernacle. And whatever relic had once made the place holy had no doubt been taken away as well.

A church is not a building. Carita remembered the truism from somewhere back years ago. A church is the people within the building.

But there were no people here anymore. No people anywhere in this neighborhood. They had all moved out, forced by foreclosures. Or perhaps they had simply vanished. And so the church had too.

Carita proceeded into the main aisle, moving from the side to the center. She looked all around. Pale light streamed down through stained glass windows. It did not make things very clear. It did not show her where Jesse was.

Only as Carita began to walk up the main aisle, toward the front doors, did she at last see something like movement. It came from one of the side chapels in the back of the church, where once the living had paid to light candles for the dead.

“Jesse!” Carita had cried.

Miraculously, the boy was alone. He was untouched, unhurt, untroubled. He was kneeling at the back corner of the chapel, struggling with something that looked like a black-painted collections box. When Carita came upon him, he fell back with a faint grunt, and Carita could see what he had been trying to do.

There was a crisp new one hundred dollar bill protruding most of the way from the box, waving tantalizingly in the half-light of the chapel.

Carita at once bundled Jesse aside, shielding him from the sight as if it had been something terrible and frightening. For a moment, there was nothing but the clasp of Carita’s arms around Jesse’s small body, holding him close and tight. And then, all at once, Sister Angela was there too, with Robbie close at her side.

“What is it?”

At the question, Carita looked back toward the box. At that moment, the chimes on her digital watch beeped twice for noon. And immediately the hundred dollar bill trembled at the slot of the collections box — then it silently detached itself and fluttered slowly down toward the floor, where it stopped and lay still.

Jesse walked forward to pick it up. He handed it to Robbie.

Robbie accepted it with a drawn face and turned instantly to Carita. He held it out in a quivering hand.

“You’re going to take it, aren’t you?” It was Sister Angela. Her voice was a bare whisper, as if she were in awe. “That’s a hundred dollars!”

Carita looked from Robbie to Sister Angela. Then she snatched the bill quickly out of the boy’s hand. It seemed that the more she found out about the money, the less she understood. Here she was at what seemed to be the source — but it revealed nothing. It changed nothing.

What had been evil on her jewelry box was still just as evil coming from this strange unmarked black box. Carita swiftly stuffed the bill back down the same slot where it had come from, her heart pounding as she did so.

“No more!” said Carita as it disappeared back inside. “We don’t want any more!”

And for a moment, the box sat still. Then a single hundred dollar bill scrolled smoothly out of the slot in the black box again and fell to the floor. Carita’s fists clenched tight as she watched a second bill follow it.

She had put in one bill, and had gotten back two.

“You must have done the right thing,” said Sister Angela. “You must have figured it out.” Now Sister Angela stepped forward and picked up the bills herself. She slid them back into the slot in the box, and soon four bills emerged. She did it again and again, and in a moment, she was holding sixteen hundred dollars. After that, the packet of bills wouldn’t fit back into the slot anymore.

“Here,” said Sister Angela, pressing the money on Carita. “Take it. It was meant for you. What else could it mean?”

What else could it mean? Carita held the bills limply in her hand. What else could it mean?

Was it so obvious that if you put one bill into a box and got two bills out, that you had done the right thing? So obvious that there could be no other conceivable explanation? Sister Angela seemed to be sure of it. But then, that was what so many people seemed to believe anyway.

The box sat quietly now, as blank and as black as ever. It provided no information — only, occasionally it seemed, money.

One could never know where the money came from or why it appeared. It was simply a machine that functioned according to its unknown rules. And the rules that made it work most to the operator’s advantage were obviously the right rules.

“Keep it, keep it,” urged Sister Angela. “God knows you need it — !”

And Carita stood a moment, feeling the money in her hand. To be sixteen hundred dollars richer in the course of one day! And all she needed to do was take a bus to her bank and make out a deposit slip. They would not ask her questions or look at her strangely or gossip about her there. It would simply be what was expected.

A depositor making a deposit. And next week — another one?

But why not? If sixteen hundred dollars was good, then wasn’t thirty-two hundred dollars better? How high would it go, Carita suddenly wondered. How much could she take before God — or the Devil — or whoever was behind it — turned off the magical tap that fed the supply?

Would it be enough to make it worth the price? Enough to make it worth the selling of her soul?

Enough too, to sell the souls of her children — ?

And suddenly, a surprised wail erupted from Sister Angela. A half-strangled cry.

For Carita had started ripping the sixteen crisp new hundred dollar bills into shreds. And then stuffing them back into the slot in the box. Wedging them tight in the slot until it was filled up with jumbled scraps and nothing could go in or out anymore.

“Come on,” said Carita to Robbie and Jesse, taking one in each of her hands. “Come on home with me.”

That was how Carita remembered it anyway. But a week later she was already sure that nothing like that had really happened. Perhaps there really had been some box of money in the church that Jesse had found: a cash box or something like an old army ammo box. He’d been playing with it, ripping out one bill at a time and giving it to Robbie to bring home.

A box that had probably stashed there by criminals. A box that she had been tempted to take, but which she had finally destroyed.

(But why not take it to the police? Why destroy it herself? Carita could only imagine that she had not wanted to get involved — )

That was how it must have happened. Carita was certain that’s what Sister Angela would have remembered too. In fact, she was so sure that she didn’t even bother going to ask the principal what she remembered. That practical-minded sister would only have laughed at her.

Robbie and Jesse didn’t say anything about it either. All along, there had been something about the money that had made it hard to talk about honestly. Now it was simply that there was no reason to talk anymore. Carita wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing — but she didn’t have the energy to fight it.

Coming home from work the night after she had followed the boys to school, Carita had found nothing on her jewelry box. She wished she could have called that part a relief too, but it was more like an even push. The day had been a long one and it had brought its own problems, as most days seemed to do. That she had not come home to one more problem was hardly what she would call a triumph —

Now a week later, Carita stood at her station at the check-cashing store with her paycheck in hand. The manager had just come out of his cage to pass them out.

Before she even opened it, Carita knew exactly what the stub would say, down to the last penny. So much in wages, and so much taken out in federal tax and state tax and city tax. Then social security and Medicare. She had the numbers for each one practically memorized.

She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined what it would be like if she opened her paycheck today and instead found an extra hundred dollars added on. Would she rip up her paycheck too? Carita didn’t think so.

But then she already knew where the money in her paycheck came from. She knew it better than almost anyone else. Better than the manager, who sat back in his cage with the vault, reviewing paperwork and scribbling his signature on documents without ever looking up. Certainly she knew it better than the president of the parent bank or any of its stockholders. Much, much better than whatever regional vice president had closed down the branch that had used to operate in the neighborhood.

Her paycheck came out of everybody else. She knew that. Out of the work and sweat and fears and worry of all the customers who came to the check-cashing store. Out of their missed meals, sometimes. Out of their worn out sneakers and patched work clothes. Out of their cold furnaces and dark lightbulbs.

But Carita knew that. She knew. She looked it square in the face every single day. So nobody had to tell her. In fact, she herself would have told anybody who had wanted to know where her money came from. She would have told them for hours and hours. It was just that nobody ever seemed to want to ask.

That was what had been wrong with those hundred dollar bills in the end. They had just appeared. And the only way she could have accepted them was to act like the store manager or the bank president or its thousands of stockholders and —

And not ask where the money came from.

Not ask how it had been gotten.

There couldn’t be any such thing as a real black box. Not really. There couldn’t be any such thing as free money that didn’t come from somewhere.

Sometimes a rising tide really did raise all boats. Carita was optimistic enough to believe that. A good business can make a good product and pay a good wage, and everybody can be happy all at once: the workers, the customers, the owners. But it also happened the other way too. Carita had seen enough to know that sometimes the tide wrecks half the boats to give the other half a boost.

And the devil didn’t always make flashy promises of million dollar checks and diamonds the size of walnuts. Sometimes the devil offered you just a little extra. Just a little something, so small that you can almost convince yourself that nobody would ever notice and nobody would ever care —

But that was where Carita knew better. That was where she knew different.

As she slipped her finger under the flap of the envelope, she remembered what it had been like when she had read her first pay stub at the check-cashing store and seen in dollars and cents what it meant that she was now making less money.

That the bank was still getting practically the same work out of her. They just didn’t have to pay her as much.

Never before had she thought so clearly about that. Never before had she wondered exactly where that missing money had gone. Not quite one hundred dollars a week. But not that far off either.

Was someone else getting that money now?

And did they ever wonder where it had come from or how they had gotten it?

Riiiiip —Carita’s finger slid along the envelope edge and tore it wide open. She was vaguely aware that the manager had looked up at the sound, that he was looking quizzically right at her.

But Carita wasn’t looking back. Instead, she was looking straight through him, seeing somebody else entirely who was a hundred dollars richer that week and who had never bothered to ask themselves why.

Not that there was a good answer to that question anyway. Just a contract written in blood and signed with the scratch of a claw —

For a hundred dollars!

Carita hoped at least that whoever it was really needed it. That it had made some difference to his life. That it had been worth it.

But somehow she doubted it. Somehow she knew the story rarely went that way, as many times as it was told. The ones who get the money usually find there are diminishing returns. Sometimes even all the way down to zero —

The devil sure buys us cheap sometimes, Carita thought to herself. And he always buys in bulk —

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M. Bennardo
M. Bennardo lives in Kent, Ohio. His short stories have appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Mystery Weekly. He is also the co-editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies.