Saturday was a good day. I did not have to go to work. That meant no driving the old. dying van. That meant no precious cents burnt on gas. They were important, those cents. They helped a lot.
I had long forgotten how to count in dollars. Ever since I’d decided to escape and live on my own, raising my little daughter, I made friends with cents.
15 cents would buy a treat for my baby. Once a week, but a treat. One treat, but a treat. 69 cents would buy us a burger at the local fast food joint. Tiny, but a burger. We would split it, and felt so full after.
Every time I needed to count something in dollars, I would get scared. Because there was never enough.
That Saturday was great – the weather amidst angry January gave us a little break. The Sun was generously licking the bright snow ice cream off the mountains. The thermometer smiled as it told me we could go for a walk in the park. That was going to be one great day!
When the days were very cold, I would read all of our few books to my daughter and we would watch her favorite cartoon for about a thousand times. There is not much entertainment around when you are friends with just cents.
That was a terrible winter. I really struggled. I tried hard. I worked, but the pay was miserable and no one would hire me, since I did not have much previous work experience. I had no family. I was making 15 dollars per month more than the minimum which could have qualified me for the wealth fare. I never collected a penny of child support from my daughter’s father. Because he did not want to do anything with her when she was born. So, we set a deal – I never ask him for a penny, he never gets to see our baby.
I remember going the whole week without food for myself. I had a tray of frozen chicken, and I would make a chicken soup for my daughter. Chicken soup has so many nutrients! And I would survive by tasting a few spoons when it was cooked. I stayed so tiny. But I did everything I could to give my daughter everything a child needs.
Walks were great, though! When we went for a walk, we sometimes found a few cents on the ground. We also found some useful appliances which people had left in their back alleys for some one like us to pick up. Sometimes our walks were real life savers.
I opened the fridge and reached for the milk carton. It almost slipped out of my hand, because it was nearly empty. I looked inside. There was just enough for a glass. I had to decide – was I going to boil an egg for my daughter for breakfast, and then give her the glass of milk, or was I going to make some pancakes, but then she would have to have tea with them. She hated eggs and she loved milk. She loved pancakes and hated tea. I decided to go with an egg. On the Walk Day, she can deal with an egg.
While holding the milk, I was trying to get an egg out of the carton, but it was stuck in there for some reason. Without looking, I put the milk on the counter besides the fridge to free my other hand. All I heard was a quiet thump and I felt a splash on my bare feet. The milk was gone. I closed the fridge and slowly slid down his white empty belly to the floor.
“What have I done? The pay day is not for another week… There are so few cents left in the tin!” – the crazy dance of thoughts preoccupied me for a moment. I felt tears starting to roll down my face. Next thing, I burst into real tears and started to cry very loudly. All my misfortunes caught up with me. I felt trapped and helpless. My crying woke my daughter up and I heard her tiny steps on the stairs. I stopped crying immediately, and with the heart bleeding, wiped off my tears.
– “Mama, are you OK”, – huge steel grey eyes were looking at me with concern.
– “Of course, baby! I just pinched my finger on the fridge door”. I was trying to hide the spilled milk by keeping the fridge door open, – “Why don’t you go get me the orange tin from my bedroom? I need to go get some milk for our breakfast”.
Her tiny feet produced a little drum roll as she rushed upstairs. Very quickly, I wiped the milk off the floor. Soon I heard the real orchestra coming down the stairs, as her drumsticks of tiny legs were joined by the cymbals of cents jumping inside the tin. The music of cents. I will never forget it.
I had no choice. I had to go get another carton. I knew I would come up with something next week to survive till the payday. I always did. May be, go without dinner again. Not that hard.
I went to the store next door. The owner of the store was very nice to me, he knew how hard the things were. He would let me sometimes take an item or two in credit. But I felt so miserable when I had to do that. In my home country I had a Degree. I just never had money to complete all the necessary courses to have it transferred. The poverty and misfortune did not break me. I still had my pride. It hurt when the cents were thrown at it. Looking back, for the whole two years my pride was hurt. Surprisingly, it survived.
Another way to find some extra cents was to look closely at the rows of treats below the counter. When paying, people will drop some and never pick them up. I think I was the only one I knew who had to make friends with cents.
I went to the back of the store to pick up the precious milk. Right near the fridge door, there was a lottery ticket laying on the ground. Not signed. For the Saturday’s big lottery draw. Without thinking, I picked it up quickly and hid it in my pocket. Then I looked around to see if anyone saw me stealing. I felt terrible, my heart was pounding. There was no one in the store, and the owner was busy at the counter , sorting candy.
I went to pay for milk and it felt like the ticket was going to burn a hole in my pocket.
I never even dreamt about buying a lottery ticket. That was an unaffordable luxury. Though, I dreamt about winning big. So that I could stop being friends with cents. And then, just like that, I had a ticket. I did not care at the time if it was a winning ticket. It was a chance…
After breakfast, we set off to the park. I felt very upbeat, I was literally, flying. I do not know why the Hope made me so happy. But it did. Very soon I did not feel guilt for picking up somebody else’s ticket. At the park, while my daughter was raiding the playground, I sat on the bench and pulled out my ticket. The numbers printed shocked me.
4 – My Mother’s Birthday. 14 – My daughter’s Birthday. 18 – my Birthday. 19 – my Dad’s Birthday. 33 – my lucky number. I had it on every shirt and jersey in many kinds of sports I played. 48 – the number of the apartment, where I used to live with my parents. The last place where I was ever care free.
I started to shake even more. The numeric coincidence made me very excited. I could almost feel the win. The draw was later on tonight and all I could think of was to watch the balls with my numbers to fall out of the machine.
I do not know how long we were in the park, but when my daughter came to me, asking if we could go home, I knew it was a very long time. My toes were absolutely numb in my light shoes with two pairs of socks in them. My bottom was freezing after sitting still for so long on a cold bench. But I did not care. We raced each other home, with me suddenly discovering some tremendous energy.
We slowed down to a walk near our building. There was an old lady on the pathway. making small steps in the circle, her head hanging very low, as she was looking for something. I could not help but notice, as we approached her, how Sun was reflecting off her cheeks. The old lady was crying.
– “Ma’am, is every OK?”, – I asked her.
– “I lost it… I did… Old horse I am…”, – the woman had a very clear, like a mountain creek, voice. That voice went so well with the crispy sparkling snow and the Sun which by then began to be tired of working so hard the whole day.
– “You lost what? Can we help you look for it?”
– “We will never find it. Someone took it. People do not return the stuff like that. It was a ticket. A lottery ticket. Every Saturday for over 20 years I play the same set of numbers. Those are special numbers!”
I felt a terrible shiver crawling up my spine. I suddenly felt hot, very hot, my cheeks burning the air. I waited for the lady to continue, unable to move, unable to say anything.
– “I was four years old when my Dad was killed in the War. I was fourteen when my Mom passed away from all that hard work she had to do by herself on our farm. I had to take care of my three siblings, all younger than me. I was eighteen when I met my wonderful Frank. He took care of all of us and loved me like no one ever would. I was nineteen when we were blessed with Isabelle, our only daughter. I was thirty three when my Frankie was killed in a car accident. I was forty eight when my little granddaughter was born”, – the tears started to choke her again and the woman stopped talking.
I slowly slipped the hand into my pocket. The ticket was there. With the numbers 4, 14, 18 , 19, 33 and 48. My lucky numbers. The numbers that told a story of one’s life.
– “My daughter moved South and I haven’t seen her in so long. Her husband does not like me. He is rich and his family is all so snobbish. He fell for my daughter’s beauty and that’s all he wanted from our family. I want to see my granddaughter. But I do not even know where they live now. Last card they sent for Christmas was three years ago while there were on vacation. You see, if I win, I can hire somebody to find them for me. I can buy a plane ticket. I can buy them expensive presents. Her husband will see how rich I am and will stop hiding my daughter from me!”
I realized that I was standing there, hugging the old lady and tears were streaming down my face. My daughter leaned against my leg and was hugging me at my hip. She did not know what was going on, and looked scared.
- “Baby, go open the house, I will be right there”, – I gave her the key.
The old woman was studying my face now. She followed my daughter with her eyes and said: – “I thought it was your sister! You look so young! I hope she will never forget about you!”
– “Your daughter did not forget about you, I am sure. And you will see her. I know that. You will.”
I hesitated for a minute, then pulled my hand out of the pocket.
– “I found your ticket. You will see your daughter”.
The woman starred at the piece of paper in disbelief. She just stood there, motionless. I had to grab her hand and put the ticket in her palm. Then I abruptly pulled my other hand off her shoulder and started walking towards the house.
– “Wait, wait! If I win, I can share! I do not need it all! Just to be with my daughter. Wait!” – the woman’s voice was breaking up in the air, as I was walking faster and faster. “Can you at least come have tea with me? My name is Lydia Cents!”
I was friends with Cents now.
I hurried around the corner and ran quickly to the door. I did not want her to see where I live. I did not want the world to see where I lived.
At six o’clock I turned on the TV and chose one of the 3 available channels. I could not afford the cable, of course. The TV was given to us by the previous tenants. They wanted to buy a new one for their new home.
The pretty lady in a glitzy outfit stepped close to the rotating machine with balls. The camera focused on a little ramp, awaiting for the balls to come out. They did. 33, 19, 4, 48, 18, 14.
I turned off the TV. went upstairs and fell on my bed. I was not crying, I was not feeling anything. I was just laying there, quiet, helpless, exhausted. Being so close to the end of the hardship, yet so far away. I saw a little house under a big tree, with my daughter flying up high on the swings. I saw a nice sports car in front of the house. I saw a tidy office of my practice. I saw my Mom and Dad, sitting around the dining table with me again. I saw so many things that I knew will now be just a dream.
I stayed in bed the whole Sunday. I could not move. I felt terrible. On Sundays me and my daughter would go for brunch to the local community center. We made some friends there. The parents of a little girl stopped by at 11, and took my daughter with them. I did not get up. I could not. I did not feel my legs, or any part of the body. I was made of air. Very sad air.
On Monday I did scrape myself off the bed to go to work. When I got there, my boss called me in. He was smiling. I thought at first that my application for the winter kids camp was approved. It was hard to get into that camp.
My boss pointed out to the chair. That was the first. He never asked me to sit down, and barely ever looked at me.
– “Katherine, I was reviewing some profiles here to see if anybody could fit to take the new position of the shift supervisor that just became available.”
I felt my heart beating really fast. The shift supervisors get the lunch allowance and the pay is a lot of cents more! I will not have to worry measuring each cup of milk!
– “By the sounds of your past, you do not qualify for this position”. He got out of his chair and was standing there, towering above me, drilling me with his very cold blue eyes.
I heard the sound of cents in my tin. I told myself that I should had stoped hoping. I could had been a millionaire already, only if I would had gotten up off that park bench earlier and went home before Lydia Cents crawled out there to look for her ticket! Only if I would had less heart and honesty! My heart sank. I could barely hear what else he was saying. Through the thick cotton of disappointment his voice was barely touching my brain. I had a Law Degree! But I had to move right after my graduation, to flee the unlawful society back home, to save my daughter from having to live in the scarily unfair world.
– “… and it did appear to me that you are overqualified. Furthermore, I spoke to your immediate supervisor and she informed me of your hard working habits, extreme dedication and the constant very useful suggestions to improve the productivity and safety. She had also told me that a few times you had helped your colleagues with a very valuable advise, worthy of a seasoned lawyer. Katherine, are you listening?”, – he was standing right beside my chair, smiling. His eyes were so warm now, like the Summer sky.
– “I am sorry. I thought I was being fired. I am sorry.”
– “Fired? You? I just told you that we are interested in getting you a position in our main office. I do not know why how your qualifications were overlooked!”
– “Oh, sir, they were not overlooked. I can not practice in this country until I complete certain requalification courses. I will one day. I simply do not have money for it. My daughter just turned 7, and I am a single parent. I have no family here. Could you please let me take that supervisor’s position? It will help me a lot. I promise, I will work hard and I will save money to take the necessary courses and programs”.
– “I am very well aware of what you need. I have already looked into that. The lady that interviewed you, to whom you told your story, is my sister. So, I have a plan for you. We will pay for your courses and upgrades. All I am asking in return is to work for us for two years after. You will have your own office. We also provide our top corporate staff with vehicles, many allowances and benefits. When is the earliest course you can take?”
– “It is actually, in one week. I very seriously doubt it that I can get in. They are always full and require to register at least 6 months in advance. But I can try.”
– “Try”, – he looked me deep in the eye and handed me an envelope, – “This is for you and your daughter while you keep trying”.
I peeked inside and all I saw was a bunch of the brown bills. Hundreds… That was probably my four month’s pay in there, may be more. I can buy my daughter that pretty dress she liked so much for Easter!
I could not help it, and started to cry. I cried like a little girl, sobbing, mashing my tears all over my face. I cried and I cried, and all he did, was holding the tissue box. – “That’s enough. Tears do not go well with such pretty face like yours. You will be OK”.
I rushed to the Law Society’s office. I flew in there, crushing the air on my way. The unapproachable, very polished receptionist looked at me, in my dirt cheap jacket and sneakers, with a look of amusement.
– “How can I help you?” – “Look, I know, the registration for the Course is closed, but is there any chance they can make a one time exception? Just this time? I have the money to pay for it now! Please!”
She smirked, and said: “Well, isn’t that a coincidence! One of the registrants dropped out just this morning. I was going to call the people who were turned down. But you are here, so it saves me some work. Plus, I really need to leave the work early. Here is the application. Bring it back with the proof of everything tomorrow.”
I shoved the big yellow envelope under my jacket, as it was beginning to snow, jumped into my rusted out van and drove home.
My daughter was soon dropped off by her friend’s mom. I grabbed her and started to dance around our empty living room, that made a pretty good ball room, because there was no furniture in it, except the old tv sitting on some cardboard boxes and the armchair. also left for me by the previous tenants.
My daughter started to laugh, not knowing what was going on. It has been a long while since she saw me this happy. We danced and laughed, and danced again. I had already long forgotten about being a one day millionaire. I felt like I just won a million dollars all over again!
Five years went by.
We lived in a nice house, in an upscale neighborhood. I drove the latest car. My daughter was taking fencing and dancing and all kinds of classes. We shopped in designer stores. I was one of the corporate CEO’s, in charge of all legal matters of the huge company I worked for. Nothing I kept from our horrible, hungry past. Except a small tin, with a few coins inside of it. Seventy five cents, to be precise. That’s how much money I had that Monday before going to work.
I never added a cent to those three coins. I preserved and protected the tin like it was a magic wand. I carried it in my purse when we moved. We moved twice. Almost immediately, my company moved me to the better apartment which was very close to work. Second time we moved when I was able to put money down on my own, beautiful house.
Every time I had to drive close to where we lived when we were so poor, I would drive a few extra blocks, just to avoid being so close to the place where I was so unhappy. I donated generously to the charities, and volunteered at shelters. I was not afraid of dealing with the poverty. I was afraid to deal with my Past again.
That Saturday was very different. It was a beautiful July’s night. My daughter had just left for the music camp with her class. It was the first time I had ever been away from my daughter for more than a day. I felt very lonely and did not know what to do with myself. The gym closed early on the weekends, and all of my friends were already away on vacations, or had some clubbing plans.
Suddenly, I felt the urge to drive back to our old apartment. I wanted to walk in the park where me and my daughter spent so many hours, running and playing away from the brutal reality we lived in.
I started my shiny car and put the top down. I looked at myself in the mirror. A beautiful woman was looking back at me. A very successful and powerful woman I ran back into the house and grabbed my precious tin. I wanted it to come with me into the Past.
The area did not change much. Some houses were freshly painted, and the trees grew taller. Our old apartment had really nice curtains in it, and the bright pink children’s bike on the balcony. The bike made me smile. It meant that whoever lived there now, was way better off than we were when we lived there.
I walked to the park. They put some benches along the path now. On the third one, there was sitting a petite, dark haired woman. When I approached the bench, she got up, jumped in front of me, startling me.
I stopped, and she said: “She knew you would come back one day! She told me to sit here and wait for you, and to give you this”. Then she handed me a small blue envelope. The envelope caught my attention for a brief moment, and when I lifted my eyes again, the woman was gone. I turned around, looked – no sign of her. Like she never existed.
I sat down and opened the envelope. There was a plain piece of paper in it. I pulled it out, trying to see if there was anything on the other side. Suddenly, I heard the voice, which sounded like a mountain creek in the spring. As I was listening to it, the letters would appear on the paper and disappear at the sentence end.
This is what the piece of paper told me: “Dear stranger. I knew that I would never see you again, since it’s the rule us, angels, have – never go back to the person you blessed with magic. We are not allowed to accept the praise from people.
But I needed to say a few things to you. You were my last project. Yes, us, angels, retire too. We move on to training the new angels. Because very soon we run out of people whom we can not see again, so that they can not praise us.
You gave me back the ticket that could have turned your life around in one night. But you gave it to me, because you have such a wonderful heart.
I followed you back then for quite a while. I knocked that carton of milk off the counter, so that you would leave the house and go to the store that day. Then I left the ticket on the floor. Then I ran into you and you gave me the ticket. Later on that night I was the one spinning the drum with the lottery balls.
I was kneeling by your bed the following day, as I was fearing you would get so sad, you would lose your mind. I was holding you in my arms as you slept that night. I lightly tickled you with my wings the following morning, as you were so upset, you forgot to set the alarm.
I put your file on top of your boss’s desk. And I made him read it.
Everything else you did yourself, because as soon as your boss read your file, I had to leave the Earth for good. Our retirement comes at the precise hour, at the precise minute.
All of the success that came to you – it is all yours.
You might want to wonder, what happened to the ticket? I kept it. It changes the date every year, so, it will forever be good. It is in this envelope. You are free to take it.
But, please, cash it only if you really need it. If you think someone else needs it more, just leave it. I know, you walked away from this fortune once. I also know, it will be much harder the second time around. But think – do you really need it?”
The paper went silent abruptly. I sat there for a while, hoping it will talk again, but it did not and I looked inside the envelope. Now there was a ticket inside. I looked at the numbers. 4, 14, 18, 19, 33, 48. Just like five years ago.
I sat on that bench for a long time. I was not thinking. I knew what I was going to do. I was just sitting there, remembering every detail of the painful Past. I saw it all again so clearly. But for the life of me, I could not remember how Lydia Cents looked like.
I got up and went to my car. I found the pen in the glove compartment and wrote on the envelope: “Lydia Cents” and dropped it into the mailbox near that corner store where I found the magic a few years ago.
I wanted to drive off without looking back. I wanted to put this amazing story behind, as of to preserve it from any doubtful thoughts in the future. But, for some reason, I decided to hold on to the tin.
I picked it up, but it was so heavy and there was no cents music coming from it. I opened the lid, and all I saw were bills inside. Crisp, brown bills. Hundreds. I took a few to look at them closer, but the tin got immediately filled up again. No matter how many bills I took out, the tin was full again.
I knew that the magic was now to stay in my life. Suddenly I realized that I had never even noticed what was on that tin. My daughter brought it home one day, said she had found it on the street. The tin had very pretty colors on it, and an attached lid. I kept it by my bed, feeding it with the little cents I had back then.
I looked at the tin and saw beautiful roses and a gorgeous woman in a pretty hat, smiling. The sign above her pretty portrait said “Enjoy The Heavenly Chocolates From Lydia Cents And Co.”.