“45.75” by Janis Robertson

She would not shut up. Debra was telling a very dull story about her Swedish great-great-grandparents. Debra was always telling a dull story.

Ester needed off this Zoom meeting. Rubbing a palm across her jaw, she could feel the hair growing in. Like, seriously, she could feel the little follicles bursting forth and covering her face in peach fuzz. Hated peach fuzz. It had never been a problem in her 20s. She didn’t remember worrying about it for most of her 30s. Now she was facing down 40 and hormones had taken over. While the hair at her temples was thinning, other hair sprung up in unwanted places. In embarrassing places. She chastised herself for keeping her camera on for the meeting. It would be too suspicious if she turned it off now.

Finally, finally, the meeting was done. Ester unmuted just long enough to shout, “Have a great weekend!” and slam the laptop shut. In her rental bathroom, the microblade case was hidden behind a wall of mouthwash and hairspray in case any nosy friends decided to check the cabinets.

One pass, blade tilted at the optimal angle, scrape, don’t cut. Start with the chin and work up. Neck comes last. Her fingers ran over a freshly-bladed swath of skin, finding the soft fluff still intact. Second pass. When was the last time she’d replaced these blades? Third pass. It wasn’t working. She touched her face again. Ester couldn’t be sure, maybe it was all in her head, but the fuzz felt thicker.

This was clearly an emergency.


Pop music from a singer she couldn’t name blasted Ester as she walked into the store. The open-plan space was busy. She would never normally come at this time of day. Too many people who looked like kids here. Too many people who looked like her with people who looked like their kids. Steady on her mission, Ester marched for the hair removal section. Tweezerman had new rose gold tweezers out. An art deco sign was attempting to bring sugaring back. She snatched up the microblade replacements waiting on the bottom rack.

“That’ll be $49 even. Cash or card?”

Forty-nine-fucking-dollars. The price had nearly doubled. Add in tax and here was the total, nearly fifty bucks for a couple of thin pieces of metal. Her phone was clutched in her hand, a credit card tucked neatly into its little slot. A neat little overdrawn credit card. If she used it, the transaction would still go through. The finance charge wouldn’t be that bad.

“Cash or card?” the sales associate asked again. The line was long behind Ester but the associate was unrushed, probably used to such indecision. She looked like a dream. Bright algae-green hair, huge eyelashes, a pink prom dress with puffy shoulders. Red lips. All of it looked effortless.

Cash or card…

The birthday card from Ester’s grandma was still in her bag from when she’d finally checked her overflowing mailbox. She drew it out, flipped open the illustration of a cat napping in a sunny meadow. Behind the fifty-dollar bill was Grandma’s note. “Spend it on something that makes you happy!” That was a gut punch, thanks Grandma. This would not make her happy. None of this was making her happy.

She kept her head down to hide the tears as the associate pressed the change in her hand. Maybe she said something, asked if Ester needed a bag. Ester just crumpled the change in her hand, took her microblades, and fled.


Safe in her car, Ester couldn’t hold it in any longer. The sobs shook her. She hated all this work, labor, time, and money that never got her closer to where she needed to be. Her hand squeezed around the bills and coins until they dug into a nerve and she dropped them into her lap. There, spread out on her thighs was two twenties, a five, and three quarters. $45.75.

Too much change.

She counted it twice, faced all the bills, folded them, put the quarters on top. Then got out, looking up at the store. The graphic black and white sign gazed back down at her. On the other side of the parking lot was a Lowes, a TJ Maxx, and an Islands: Fine Burgers & Drinks. The singular time she’d been to an Islands was fifteen years ago, in the dwindling months of her first real relationship. The months before she fell in love with someone else. Ester and Ray had ventured from their city neighborhood into the suburbs to buy new shelves at Target. The new shelves were going to save their relationship. After twenty minutes of finding the exact angle to shove the long boxes into Ray’s compact sedan, they went for dinner at Islands. They’d ordered ridiculous cocktails and made each other laugh. Up to the end, they could make each other laugh.


This Islands looked the very same as the one from all those years ago. The hostess was busy texting on her phone so Ester slunk past to the dark bar punctuated by LED tiki signs. She found the darkest corner of the dark bar where, if she was lucky, no one would notice her eyes puffy from crying and the practical beard covering her face. It was empty. No one to judge her appearance save the bartender cutting limes, just starting his shift. He greeted her with a menu and a water and a smile that disappeared as soon as he turned around. Ester didn’t have to look at the menu. She remembered.

“I’ll take a Blue Volcano Blizzard.” The bartender nodded and started pouring liquids into a blender. While she waited, Ester counted the change. Over and over. It just didn’t seem real. Every time she came up with the same number. Forty-five seventy-five. She began to mentally tally all the money she’d spent at the store over the years. Forty-five seventy-five was a drop in the ocean of receipts she kept stuffed in a drawer, always promising she’d return the expensive item she’d just bought.

The drink was plopped down in front of her without much flair. That was a little disappointing, but she still appreciated the smoking blue concoction, swirls of whipped cream threaded throughout the tall glass. Not one, but two paper umbrellas. And an entire toothpick full of maraschino cherries. The sugar rush of the first sip turned her stomach and caused an immediate pressure in her sinuses. Ester checked the price on the sticky menu. $21.00.

“One more, please” she called to the bartender’s back and went on sucking the bright slush through the oversized straw.

She was almost done with the second Blue Volcano Blizzard, her tongue coated in artificial color, when she heard his laugh.

His laugh. No. There was no way.

Ester got up and rounded the fish tank divider. There were no other customers save for a couple seated at a booth, laughing. It was shocking to see him, unaged, unchanged.

But the thing that made the Blue Volcano Blizzard lurch back into her throat, was the sight of her. Herself.

Ester was looking at her own younger self. So happy in the moment. Cheeks flushed with mirth and youth and deep fried food.

This was confusing. Greatly confusing. Ester knew she should be having some kind of meltdown, some kind of big reaction. Instead, she felt just… numb.

She took a step forward, thinking she needed to warn her young self… but of what? Getting out of that relationship was one of the best decisions she ever made, even if it hurt the person she loved most in the world. Warn her the years would slip through her fingers at a terrifying speed? That fear would hold her back? That her biggest regrets would be the times she had been cruel or stingy or unkind?

An image appeared in her mind’s eye. An image of the sales associate in her prom dress counting out her money drawer for the evening, then having to explain to some manager in caked-on foundation why she was $45.75 short. Ester turned on heel and sprinted out the swinging door, across the parking lot, her heart spinning. Everything made sense inside her own mind but, on the outside, she could feel the logic of it slipping away.


The quietness of the store felt more familiar than the earlier glut of customers. A couple associates were stocking shelves while they gossiped. A cleaning person waited in the corner, vacuum at the ready. A different associate was behind the register, trying to hide that they were scrolling TikTok. Ester marched up.

“The woman — the person — who was here earlier. She rang me up. I need to speak to her. I have… something… for her. She needs it before she can leave.”

This new associate gave Ester a dubious eyebrow raise. Their nametag read: Rocky, Regional Manager.

“Who?” Rocky asked.

“Who?” Ester parroted.

“Yeah, who are you talking about?”

“I don’t know her name. But she was working the register earlier. Around four.”

Rocky called, no, shouted across the room. “Who was on reg at four?” The last remaining customers looked up, curious.

“Trésor,” yelled back a gossiping associate.

“Who?” Rocky shouted again.


“She’s the one who quit,” said the other gossiping associate.

Rocky turned back to Ester. “They called me in on my day off because someone quit. So annoying.”

Ester stared at Rocky trying to get her mind to catch up. The sales associate had given her too much change. The associate’s name is Trésor. Trésor didn’t work there anymore.

It was all Ester’s fault.

She snaked the rows of products over to the Gossipers. “I need to find Trésor. Where did she go?”

“Home?” one of them guessed.

“No, CVS. She always goes to CVS. It’s, like, her place,” the other said.

“Why would she hang out at a— actually, just, which one?” Ester asked.

They both shrugged in unison. “Any?”


Dazed, Ester wandered the parking lot searching CVS locations on her phone. She typed in “cvs how many” and regretted it. 9,547. There was only one person she could think to ask for guidance.

The early dinner crowd was slowly filling Islands but the table where her young self had sat was empty. The sting of an unsuccessful idea pricked at Ester’s chest. Her bladder felt suddenly full of Volcano cocktails. She made her way to the dim bathroom, hits of the early 2000s playing too loudly. When she came out of the stall, there was her young self, examining a few large pores around the sides of her nose.

That’s right, Ester thought. That’s when I became self-conscious about the texture of my skin.

In the mirror, Young Ester caught sight of Present-Day Ester. Young Ester couldn’t help but gawk, her neural pathways struggling to find a reason for seeing herself as another, living being. Present-Day Ester couldn’t take the time to explain. She had change to return.

“If you were looking for someone at a CVS, which CVS would you go to?” she asked plainly.

“Um… I… I always go to the one on 7th. It’s small but never busy. People forget about the one on 7th,” Young Ester answered, eyes bewildered.

Present-Day Ester thanked her, washed her hands, and exited the bathroom. Young Ester watched her go, those neural pathways clogged with information.

By the host stand, Ester passed her once-boyfriend who was decidedly less confused, but still couldn’t understand the familiarity of the stranger brushing past him. She turned to him.

“Just know, when she breaks up with you, it will take her a long time to forgive herself for hurting you. But she’ll always regret she didn’t do it sooner.”


Ester had never actually seen the CVS on 7th, much less been in it. But there it was, unusually small and wedged in between a Subway and an orthodontist office. The sign felt off-brand somehow. Ester tried to remember what a CVS logo usually looked like but found it hard to recall.

Ding went the electronic bell as she made her way in the entrance. A watchful security guard gave her a nod. Wondering how stupid this plan was, she stepped toward the personal care section. It was unlikely to find someone who worked in a beauty store in the beauty aisle of another, lower-tier store, but where else to look?

She noticed microblades were $24.75 here. As she bent to look closer, there was the feeling of moving through cobwebs. An invisible wispiness, followed by the shiver of being sure something was crawling on you. As Ester furiously swiped at her face, her inner ears popped as if all the sound in the room had been suddenly sucked out.

And then it was a club.

CVS was a club. Dark with flashing lights, bass-heavy music, fog. The aisles were now filled with dancers. The shelves of products were only painted-on pictures.

She realized she was giggling. Hysterically giggling. Of course this was a CVS-themed club that was somehow invisible just a few feet away. Again, she felt that disconnect. The feeling that she should be feeling more. She sighed. Later, maybe. Right now, she needed to get the money back to Trésor.

The bar was built into the pharmacy, complete with the check-in line, the pick-up window, and the consultation booths. That’s where a pharmacist was dryly explaining how to take a tequila shot along with the possible side-effects. After glancing at the written instructions, the patron slammed back the tequila and made his way to the dance floor. Ester slipped into the booth, hoping no one would notice she was cutting in line. She hated when people noticed her breaking the rules.

“Name and date of birth?” asked the pharmacist.

“I’m looking for someone. I have something important to give them. I think it might be really, really important.”

“Okay. And you want me to…?”

“Trésor is her name. Is she here? If you can point her out.”

The pharmacist adjusted the straps of her face mask, narrowing her eyes, and dropping her voice.

“We take HIPAA regulations very seriously at CVS. No confidential information will be shared with outside parties unless there is reason to believe the client will cause grievous harm to themselves or others.”

Ester flushed red. “Oh no, of course. I wasn’t asking to break the law. I’m just trying to find a… friend.”

The pharmacist didn’t bother with another reply, turning around to busy herself preparing the next prescription.

Swaying on her feet, Ester felt adrift. There was an intense drum beat pulsating the club. She let it wash her into the throng of dancers. For a moment, her body moved autonomously while her mind worked.

She would donate the money. Tomorrow morning, first thing. The first email in her inbox asking for funds. Or the first person who asks for help. Or —

Trésor crossed her eyeline. Several aisles away, Trésor’s blue-green waterfall of hair was floating toward the exit.

Ester ran. Left, right, left, criss-crossing the labyrinth of long shelves, still two aisles away when Trésor floated on out. In desperation, Ester shoved into a shelf blocking her way and lost her balance when it knocked right over, only a lightweight prop.


The sidewalk was empty and lonely but the almost-win had renewed Ester’s resolve. She was on the right track, that much was clear. The next clue would appear if she was open to it. All she had to do was stand here. Just be. Clear her mind and look inside. The moments passed. Nothing. Deep breaths. She opened her eyes to see… Nothing. Still nothing.

Stop, Ester told herself. Stop all of this. Go home, go to sleep. It’s only forty-five bucks. What harm could that do?

Compulsively, Ester took out her phone, a reflex anytime her thoughts were making her anxious. The screen confronted her with a long list of Instagram notifications. People she should follow, topics she should be interested in, how she can turn her stories into a reel!

She gasped. Trésor would be on IG, no doubt. And she’d probably be posting at this very minute. A frantic search ensued. Different spellings, variations, hashtags, trying to narrow down to the one true Trésor out of an endless list of results. A desperate idea hit Ester. She thumbed out Tresor_45.75 in the search bar. And there it was. TrésorAndSomeChange.

The account was private. As Ester clicked the request-to-follow button, she noticed Trésor was holding something in the little circle of a profile picture. Enlarging it, she could see a piece of paper. A flyer for a backyard BBQ. The print was so tiny, barely readable. She could just make out a time: Midnight to Eternity. It was nearly four in the morning now, the time speeding more than usual. Focusing on the little letters was making Ester’s vision swim but, like an epiphany, the address came clear: 754 SHICHI AVE.


It was not such an unusual party. A clump of people were gathered around a broad-shouldered man at a grill. Another clump stood around a cooler and still another avoided the smoke of a fire pit. The backyard was neither large nor small and sat behind a flat ranch-style house. People talked, mingled, boasted, bragged, shared cigarettes. All of that was normal.

The unusual thing was the guests stood on one half of the rectangular yard because the other half was taken up with a Giant Black Widow.

Her jointed legs easily reached the top of the fence, which itself was taller than the tallest person there. The red hourglass on her abdomen was half the size of the table overflowing with guacamole and mixers. Ester found herself staring straight into one of the spider’s eight eyes, at least as large as her head.

The cold terror pumping Ester’s heart made her knees unstable and she was no longer sure she had control over any bodily functions. That giant eye reflected the rest of the backyard, enjoying this early morning cookout. In the vague, watery way thoughts occur when under duress, Ester longed to be like those people. Just normal. Just unafraid.  

“It’s her.”

“It’s not her.”

“Yeah, look. It is.”

“Yeah, no.”

Ester pivoted to face the voices. The Gossipers from the store.

“Told you.”

“No, yeah, okay. I see it now.”

“Did you ever find Rocky?” the first Gossiper asked.

Ester numbly moved toward her voice. Safety was away from the spider and the voice was away from the spider so the voice must mean safety. A group of guests melted in behind her, creating a barrier, enough buffer to give Ester her voice back.

“I wasn’t looking for Rocky,” she said. “Trésor. It was Trésor.”

“Oh,” said the second Gossiper. “Nobody knows where Trésor went.”

Ester’s teeth gritted together. “You told me to go to CVS.”

The Gossipers looked at each other, a silent accusation tossed between them. They turned on Ester. “Nobody told you that.”

She felt the enamel of her molars grind with a sudden, consuming fury.

“Yes, you did! You said ‘she always goes to CVS.’ You said it straight to my face and because you said it, I went and I danced in CVS! And now I’m here and there is a giant fucking black widow and this is the fucking weirdest shit and I’m pretty sure I’ve been hallucinating for the past seven hours.”

Surprise and judgment sat deep in the eyes of the Gossipers.

“No… we would have recognized you.”

“You did!” screamed Ester. A brimming cooler stood within arms reach. She grabbed one of the icy bottles and hurled it against the fence. It made a satisfying impact with the wall, leaving a wet mark in the shape of Nevada.

“I just heard you say you recognized me! That was real! This is real!” She hurled another bottle. This one didn’t shatter so nicely but the bottom broke off, at least adding some drama.

The party had gone very quiet. The Black Widow didn’t speak, per se. It was more like a vibration in Ester’s brain. The vibration stretched and roiled itself into words. “Come here.”

She did not want to go to the Giant Black Widow but she realized that when you are at a party presided over by such a creature, you go when summoned. In that thought, Ester found some comfort. It was a simple rule to be followed.


Ester trembled as she looked into the eight giant eyes. The spider hadn’t moved visibly since Ester had arrived. She sat waiting, back legs pinned up against the fence, silent but ready to escape. Or to pounce.

“I am the Queen,” said the Black Widow.

Unsure what the proper response was, Ester managed “Oh, uh, got it. The Queen.”

She made an awkward half bow, noticing her knees weren’t as wobbly and her heart beat almost at its regular rhythm.

“Tell me,” said the Queen.

Ester was quiet for a long time. Every time she began to say what she needed to say, it would stick in her throat. Finally, the only thing that came out was, “I don’t know where I am.”

The Queen waited.

Once she located the words to continue, Ester said, “Not where I am physically. I mean, where I am in this moment among all the moments I’ve ever been in. I think I might be lost in my own life.”

More silence passed between them. It did not seem strange, only appropriate.

“Spin a web. Catch a fly. Lay your eggs,” said the Queen.

Somehow only the last one caught Ester. “Don’t I need a mate?”

“Little morsel, you lay eggs every month,” she said and tucked her front legs under her in a tired gesture. “Go now.”


The web was the easy part. As Ester rounded the house, she saw the gossamer thread. A thin line following the path she had taken to get to the spot where she was. Ester walked past her car and down the quiet neighborhood sidewalk, listening to the gentle shush of traffic a few blocks away. She was surprised when she encountered a second thread but, yes, she had been to this neighborhood before. A friend had taken her to a book club meeting and, though enthusiastic in the moment, Ester had quickly stopped reading the next month’s book.

She kept walking. Several threads led up and down the busier street. She found a Bird scooter and began to navigate the city, the silk she had woven as her map. Lines of existence, connection of one place to the other. The pattern was entirely her own. It was a beautiful, knotted web, strong in some places, weak in others.

The sun broke over the far-away mountains and dove through the layers of hazy smog. Still Ester moved through the streets, roads, alleyways. Sometimes following a thread, sometimes cutting unknown paths to find other parts of the web, the new line trailing behind her the whole time.

She came to a stop, instinctively recognizing the last of the quiet hours before the city would crescendo into the day’s noise. This time walking the ley lines of her past, it felt like a new beginning.

A pinging vibration on the thread tingled Ester’s spine like a sixth-sense she had just developed. The sensation radiated up her neck and down her sciatic nerves. Another ping went out. It was coming from somewhere behind her. She parked the scooter and carefully followed the thread, suddenly afraid of breaking it.


It might have been forty-five minutes later, it might have been longer. Ester walked and walked, finding the connecting points that lead to different segments of the web, following that ping. It had started out steady, a rhythmic beat. Now it was getting faster, bigger. More frantic, she noticed.

Trésor had been caught in the open space of the city’s largest park. The shadow of a jacaranda tree stretched long in the morning sun. The air was damp and soft. It would have been a calm scene if Trésor weren’t in the middle of it, wildly pulling at thread after thread. The strands tore quickly, only thin wisps, but they also stuck to her. The more she grabbed and yanked and pulled, the more they stuck, winding around her as she struggled.

“Let me,” Ester said as she cleared the cobwebs away, freeing her catch, limb by limb. Trésor threw her arms around Ester and wept openly. Ester laughed and wrapped her own arms around Trésor with a firm squeeze. “Okay. That’s okay. I have the money.”

Trésor backed up, wiping at her eyes, all her waterproof makeup still intact. “Money?”

“The change.” Ester gestured to a bench and broke a path through the web for them to sit. “I’m the reason you were fired. I kept the change. No, that’s not right. I stole it. And you were the one who was punished.” She dug into her pocket and held out the sweaty bills with their companion coins. Ester savored the moment of her accomplishment. “I’m sorry,” she said, careful to balance the apology with her sense of pride.  

“And so you spun a web to catch me?” asked Trésor.

“I chased you across the city but you were always one step ahead.”

“I… That’s… Don’t. Don’t do that again.”

Ester ducked her head in apology. “I won’t.”

“But here’s the thing. We’ve been cashless for the last four years. There’s nowhere I could have even gotten change to give you.”

Ester took her time with this thought, this idea that she had been so wrong, and found herself unsure of what emotion should come next.

It’s not what you should be feeling, it’s what you are feeling, she realized. She looked out on her web, the morning dew pinned neatly to it. A million little jewels sewn onto an impossible gown. Majesty.

Trésor stood. “I’m leaving now.”


To Ester the words floated up, up to the morning sun. Trésor left but Ester still sat. The time turned to noon and the weight of a night without sleep settled onto her shoulders. Ester lay underneath the jacaranda in a cool pocket of air. She slept until the late-afternoon heat woke her, then rose to her swollen feet.

The web was gone but also still there. Ester traced her way along the memory of a strand to the first place she had ever lived in the city, a sublet room in a stranger’s apartment. She remembered how brave she had been, starting here with no one to guide her. She remembered how heartbroken, excited, terrified, and arrogant she’d been. She remembered how the first month of rent, plus a deposit, had emptied her bank account.

Ester climbed the steps and was confronted by her reflection in the glass entry. She looked tired, yes. There was a stray piece of dried grass in her frizzy hair. A line of dark freckles cut across one cheek, probably from walking in the sun. Skin crinkled around her eyes and mouth and forehead and nose and neck, leaving lines she’d spent so many dollars trying to erase. A layer of nearly-invisible hair covered her face.

It was normal. Ester was unafraid.

Her fingers moved across the security keypad, remembering their old dance. The door buzzed. The code hadn’t changed. 4575.  

As she passed the row of metal mailboxes, Ester unpinned a flyer from the building’s bulletin board. Second floor, down the thinning brown carpet hall. There was a dent in the wall next to the door from when she had tried to move a thrift store desk by herself. The dent was fresh. Ester folded the flyer in half. Then creased each edge in. Folded it in half again. She left the flyer wedged under the door jamb, forty-five dollars and seventy-five cents neatly tucked inside.

A Little About The Writer:

Janis Robertson grew up among oak trees, rattlesnakes, and coyotes howling at night. After starting a stable career in San Francisco, she decided to blow it all up, spend a year backpacking across a couple continents, and return to California, full of stories. Janis made her way to Los Angeles where she graduated from the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program. With a constant curiosity about the world and the many people in it, Janis has assisted artists in the Outback, hiked volcanoes in the Andes, climbed glaciers in Norway, and sampled the local beer in 34 countries. 

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