Fighting to keep her writing steady despite the lurching of the bus, she carefully lettered her sign. As she did, she gulped back hot, shameful fears. Who would have thought her life would end up like this?
She dotted the last exclamation point and looked up. It was almost time.
Gathering up her ratty backpack, she clutched the flimsy piece of paper to her chest and pulled the cord. The bus slowed and she stood, hunching over herself as she walked to the exit.
With a hiss, the door opened. As the shock of the icy morning air passed through her, she hesitated. Could she really do this? Was it worth it?
As if in answer, a vision of her daughter sipping watered down chicken broth popped into her head. Yes. Yes it was.
She took a deep breath and stepped down and out. As the bus pulled away, she looked over at her chosen spot. Good. It was still unclaimed. But it wouldn’t be for long. She jogged over to the crosswalk, hitching up her holey sweatpants as she ran.
They had been her husband’s. The pants were the only thing that no good dirty rat bastard had left her when he hit the road last year. If only she had known…
The walk sign flashed, bringing her back to earth.
Shoulders sagging, she walked to the grassy median and thunked her backpack down in the frost. Then she turned to face the oncoming traffic and, sending up a silent apology to her younger, more hopeful self, held up her sign.
“Family in need,” it read. “Anything helps.”
But that’s not what she wanted it to say. She wished it read, “I’m not a drug addict. Not an alcoholic. Just a single mom who lost her job and can’t find another. I’ve got four cans of food left in my pantry. I’m three weeks behind in my rent. I’ve already lost my car and soon I’m going to lose my home. I’m terrified that if anyone finds out, I’ll lose my daughter too. Oh, and I never thought I’d be this woman, either.”
Fifteen minutes went by. Then thirty. Then forty five. No one stopped. No one made eye contact. Once, she saw a woman glance at her. Saw her face contort in sympathy. Saw her reaching for her purse. But then the light turned green, and the woman drove away.
Her fingers were frozen. She could no longer feel her toes. The tears coursing down her cheeks were the only spot of warmth on her body. Should she just give up? No, she couldn’t. She didn’t have enough for the bus fare home.
As despair flooded her veins, she heard a tentative, “hey!” The woman was back. Her hazard lights were flashing and she was getting out of her car.
Getting out of her car? Why would she do that?
The woman walked over, clutching something in her fist.
“Hey,” she said again.
“H-Hi,” she answered. “How are you?”
How are you? What kind of question was that?
The woman smiled. “Good. Real good.” Then she reached out and grabbed her hand, folding a wad of paper into it.
“It isn’t much, but I want you to have it. I’ve been where you are. I’ve been there, and I know how awful it feels.”
“Th-thank you. I…”
“No, don’t thank me. Just know…it can get better. It will get better. You just have to hang in there.”
The woman squeezed her hand and walked back to her car. As the car pulled away, she looked down at the crumpled wad in her hand. It was money.
She unfolded it, counting as she did. Twenty, forty, sixty…a hundred? All told, there was $123. And in the middle was a business card. “Haven’s Cross Women’s Center,” it read. “Counseling, Financial Assistance and Career Services.”
For the first time in what felt like years, she smiled.
This post was written for the first challenge at Write of Passage, a new network for bloggers who want to work on the art of writing. The topic was “character.” The directions? Study someone and make up a story about them. How’d I do?
Check out the other entrants: