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One for Another
A plastic toy car glistened under the fluorescent lighting of the living room. He looked at it, intrigued, wondering what it was and what it could possibly be for. He crawled towards it and reached for it with his small, grubby hand.
As he picked it up, the headlights flared and a horn blared from a hidden speaker on the bottom of the toy. Startled, he dropped it back onto the ragged cream-colored carpet and began to bawl. His mother rushed over from the kitchen and hurriedly scooped him up into her warm arms.
“Shh, it’s ok,” she murmured comfortingly into his hair. “It was just a car. It’s nothing to cry over.”
* * *
Music blasted from Jason’s cheap MP3 as he made his way off the crowded bus that took him home each day. He lived out of the school district, so instead of taking the bright yellow school bus, he was forced to walk to a bus stop and wait for a grimy city-owned bus to take him to his house.
As he walked down the narrow aisle, however, a foot shot out from one of the seats, causing him to lose his balance and fall over. His hands, which had shot out in an attempt to break his fall, slipped in a liquid and only caused him to scrape his elbow against the edge of a seat.
He dearly hoped that the liquid was not what he thought it was.
Jason looked up, wondering whose foot had been responsible. Above him leered an unkempt man with tattered clothes. His nose was inches away from Jason’s, his matted hair falling into his face, with breath that stank of rotted fish.
“Need help?” he sneered, his face gruesomely distorted, likely the product of a few too many overdoses.
Jason shook his head, eyes wide, heart racing, and leaped from the dirty, food littered aisle and off of the bus. As he sprinted away from the bus stop, he imagined that he could hear the man laughing from his seat by the window.
By the time he made it back to his home, he was panting and sweating profusely. Exhausted, he leaned against the worn brick wall of his house, his hands still wet and nerves still shaken from the encounter.
He wished that his father were still here. His father was the type of person that could make light of any occasion. He would comfort Jason and would offer to make him his favorite pancakes, which he would then drench in syrup.
“You know how much your mother hates cleaning up all of the flour that I’ve spilled,” his father would joke. “Such a graceful woman could never understand what it’s like to be a man with clumsy hands.”
But he wasn’t here now. Four years ago, Jason had come home from the first day of school to find his mother sobbing uncontrollably. All she had told him in between her hiccups and sniffles was that his father was gone.
She had refused to say whether he had died or merely left, and Jason learned not to ask.
After resting for a couple of minutes, Jason finally recovered his wits. Still breathing heavily, he fumbled with the key to unlock the front door and nearly collapsed once inside the cramped living area.
However, as he made his way towards his bedroom, he heard voices from his mother’s room.
“—can’t afford a car!” his mother was saying. “Even if I rent a vehicle, the monthly dues will destroy us!”
“Then find a way to pay for it!” shouted another, deeper voice. Since it was marred by static, Jason assumed that his mother was talking to a man on the phone.
“If you don’t make it on time to work tomorrow or the next day, you’ll have another pay cut. That takes you to minimum wage. Another pay cut and you’re fired. You understand me?” the voice continued. The line went silent before Jason’s mother had a chance to reply.
Pay cut? Fired? Jason thought, horrorstruck. Hot anger reared inside him like a fiery dragon that threatened to burst all of his emotional walls. Nobody talked like that to his mother. But… he had never been aware that his mother had been having such large financial difficulties. Sure, she refused to buy the occasional toy or pair of shoes, but to be fired because she couldn’t afford a car? Then, like a puzzle piece snapped into place, everything clicked.
The children at his school, who had ridiculed people like him for their worn-out sneakers and patched backpacks, while they all wore smartwatches and owned brand-new cell phones. He realized that to them, he was a sideshow. An exhibit at a zoo, to be ogled at but never interacted with, since he was a lesser being than them, not of the same status, not of the same class.
The parents of those children, who drove their kids to school in streamlined cars while his mother biked to work in any and all weather conditions, sometimes returning home sick with a cold or the flu.
And now that he realized the signs of his social standing, he could not blame his mother for trying to shield him from reality. She had paid tuition to send him to a better out-of-district public school and gently reminded him to keep his grades up whenever they dipped. She wanted him to have a better life than her, to do better than she could’ve.
Seeing all of this around him, his eyes now opened to things that they had once been blind to, caused a torrent of sorrow to well up inside him. He wanted to help his mother, who had done so much more for him than he had ever thought.
She was the person who had made small stuffed teddy bears with buttons for eyes when she had not been able to afford a toy from a store. The person who tried to make his favorite meal, grilled cheese with a strawberry-orange fruit salad on the side, as often as she could.
He now vowed to himself to try and repay her as much as he could, no matter what or how long it would take. He might not be able to prevent her from being fired, but perhaps…
Ideas ran through his head as he washed his hands and collapsed onto his bed.
* * *
It may have been nearly seven years, but it was done at last. His signature on the document shone under the soft sunlight that coupled with harsh lighting. He felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Everything came up to this. Today, he would be giving back for what his mother had bestowed upon him.
The sales attendant stared at him from the corner of her eye, most likely wondering why he was just standing there, gazing at nothing.
“Would you… like to go and see it, sir?” she asked. “Before you take it home with you?”
The words, slightly distorted by the commotion within Jason’s brain, took a moment to register. He nodded shakily before turning away from the girl. He shook himself from his stupor, clearing his muddled thoughts.
This would be a new start, he promised himself. A foundation for a new life, a life where they would not need to live like pigs in a pigsty, but were free to roam the endless world without fear of ridicule or discrimination.
And as this ran through his mind, he felt a rush of adrenaline pump through his veins. The sudden burst of energy propelled him forward, nearly causing him to faceplant into the generic red-and-white tiles that made up the floor of the building.
From behind him, the attendant giggled.
He felt his face warm slightly, but he nevertheless continued forward, practically sprinting to the door in his haste to view the product of his work that lay outside.
The automatic doors sensed him and hissed open, allowing a crisp breeze to hit Jason’s face. It cooled the heat that had risen after his stumble and toned down his energy slightly. He slowed his pace and glanced around the lot. It took a moment before he found it among all of the others, but there, framed perfectly against the red and orange backdrop of fall leaves, sat a golden-white SUV.
He looked at it for several long moments, enthralled by its sleek outline, its glistening beauty that reminded him of a dewdrop perched precariously on the edge of a leaf.
Suddenly, a voice sounded from behind him.
“You forgot your keys!” the attendant said, materializing beside him.
Jason started, surprised. He looked down at the keys the girl was holding out to him. While reaching out for them, he caught the attendant’s eye. He noticed, all of a sudden, how pretty she was.
She had golden-brown hair with eyes like those of a fresh spring day. And she was smiling. That part was important.
“Thanks,” he murmured, a bit confounded by all of the emotions that were running through him at once.
Before he could think too much about it, he grabbed the keys, unlocked the driver’s door, and slid into the front seat. The interior was comfortable, with plush gray fabric seats and much more legroom than he had anticipated. He dropped the keys with a clatter into the cupholder and pressed the button that would start the car.
The engine purred smoothly, a feline stretching its legs after a long nap. He shifted the gear and began to drive away, determinedly keeping himself from glancing at the rearview mirror to have one last peek at the attendant.
As he drove, the warm colors of the trees blurred around him like a mosaic of gold, red, and orange. At long last, he arrived at the small brick house. He pulled into the driveway and cut the motor.
The engine quieted, and Jason made no move to exit the car. He sat for a moment, thinking about all that had brought him to this point. After a minute, he opened the door and stepped out into the chilly breeze.
Jason walked to his front door, his footsteps muffled by the leaves that littered the lawn. Anticipation wrapped its tendrils around him as he unlocked the door with a faint click.
“Mom?” he shouted to the room at large. His voice echoed a bit through the hallway.
Silence. The soft ticking of the clock that rested on a nearby shelf was the only sound that permeated the still air.
“Mom?” he called again, this time more hesitantly. What if she was sleeping?
When no one responded, he cautiously opened the door to his mother’s bedroom.
She couldn’t have gone out, since her rusted bike still lay along the side of the cluttered garage, where it usually was.
When he stepped into the room, his breath washed out from his lungs. Jason instantly forgot all about the car, about his elation, about the girl, about the goals that he had been working towards for so long. Suddenly, he was just a 9-year-old child again, ignorant about the world, unable to move forward, frozen in time. Surely, this was not happening. He stared and stared at the scene that seemed to slowly blur in front of his eyes.
For resting upon the bed, phone clutched in hand, lay his mother, his treasure, his life, the only one who truly believed in him, her face stark-white beneath the thin autumn rays of light.