An ordinary school day becomes quite extraordinary
|Justin scowls as he waits for the bus, arms folded across his skinny chest. It's not like he wanted to go to school anyway, but Mama promised to kick his butt if he didn't.
The Number forty-seven lumbers into view and pulls to a stop, blinker on. Hoping for cool, Justin scans his card with a chin nod at the driver and makes his way down the aisle. He has to grab on to a seat back when the bus lurches back into traffic.
The only empty seat is next to a big dude. The guy doesn't look too scary, so Justin eases himself in. Pulling his backpack off, he holds it briefly in his lap before putting it on the floor. Big dude watches out of the corner of his eye, pretending he's looking at his phone.
Justin slouches, fighting down the jealousy that bubbles up. Man, what he wouldn't give for his own phone. Mama says he has to "save his pennies." All of his pleading and whining about the other kids having their own phones only gets him a hands-on-hips lecture.
Intent on finding a piece of candy or maybe a snack from his lunch bag, Justin leans down to open his pack. Just at that moment, he spots a small black book on the floor, with what appears to be the edge of a dollar bill peeking out between the pages. Glancing up at big dude to make sure he's not watching, Justin slips the book into his backpack and zips it hurriedly, snack search forgotten.
Justin grabs his pack and races down the aisle as the bus pulls to a stop. Intent on getting somewhere he can examine his find more thoroughly, he leaps over the steps and hits the ground running. He skids to a halt halfway down the block when he realizes this wasn't his stop.
There’s a McDonald's just down the way. Justin hitches up his pants and waits for a group of grownups to come out of the door. Ducking under an outstretched arm, he makes a beeline for the restroom.
Justin locks himself in a stall. His heart pounds because he was running but also because he has something that doesn’t belong to him. Hanging his pack on the coat hook inside the door, he unzips it just wide enough to take the book out.
Holding the book in his hand, he opens it where the bill peeks out. He blinks several times and then rubs his eyes. That ain't no one dollar bill, and not even a twenty. It says $10,000 on each corner, right enough, and on the back too. A quick rub tells him that it feels like real money, but is there even such a thing as a $10,000 bill?
Justin flips through the blank pages, looking for a note or maybe the owner’s name. He doesn’t find any writing. What he does find is another $10,000 bill. Twenty thousand dollars? Oh wow.
The notebook goes back in his backpack and the pack goes on his chest, zipper facing towards him. He probably looks like a dork. If any kid from school sees him he'll catch some heck, but right now that's not going to bother him. Right now he needs to get home. No, right now he needs to be home.
Justin walks home quickly, trudging up the stairs to the fourth-floor apartment. This is the home he's shared with Mama these past three years, since Daddy said "no son, you can't come with me this time," and then didn't come back at all. Opening the door with the key that Mama checks to make sure he has every morning, he listens for the sound of the television. Hearing nothing, Justin walks in and parks himself on the couch, folded up neatly for daytime but at night is his bed. And there he sits until his Mama comes home.
"What are you doing home, Justin? Are you ill?" Mama puts the grocery bags on the kitchen table and walks over to him, crouching down to put the back of her hand on his forehead. Detecting no fever, she rises, placing her hands on her hips. "Did you get in trouble at school again?"
"No, Mama. I didn't go to school today. I know you said I had to but I--." Breaking off mid-sentence and reaching into his pack, Justin brings out the notebook. "I found something, Mama." He holds it up and she takes it from him, her lips pressed together. "It's a notebook, Justin. What's so special about it?"
"No, Mama. Wait. Look inside." His voice drops to a half-excited, half-terrified whisper. "You have to look!" Mama sits down next to him and opens the elastic closure, same way he did in that stall in McDonald's, and starts flipping through the pages. She stops when she gets to the first bill, staring at it and then at her son.
"Where did you get this?" Mama's eyes are angry, to match her voice. She keeps flipping the pages and then puts the notebook on the coffee table, the one that Mama always told Daddy to "take your feet off of there." Daddy would laugh but he always did take his feet off of there.
"I found it. On the bus this morning. It was on the floor." Justin stares at his lap as he confesses. He lifts his eyes for a brief moment and then right back down when he sees the "I'm still angry" look.
"And did you ask the people around you if it was theirs?" Mama's voice now has that tone of "I'm trying to be patient here, but you are wearing on my nerves." Justin darts her another look, replying hesitantly. "No ma'am." He rushes to fill the silence. "I know you said not to steal but I wasn't stealing, honest. It was just there, on the floor."
"Well, this notebook and this money belong to someone. It didn't just end up on the floor of the bus by itself." She's quiet for so long after that Justin finally looks up again, lifting his chin off his chest.
"I'm sorry, Mama. I didn't mean to cause any trouble." He shifts to face her, resting his elbow on the back cushion. "Is it real money, do you think?" Curiosity gets the better of him, even knowing that Mama could shift back to "I'm angry" instead of the current "hush and let me figure this out" look she had going.
Mama glances at the notebook again, and then back at her son. "I reckon those bills are real. I've never seen money like that, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why there would be twenty thousand dollars in that blank notebook."
Just on the verge of asking whether they might keep the money when out pop the words from Mama's mouth. "We can't keep it, of course. It's not ours. And somebody's real upset right now, Justin. And maybe mad. We have to make this right and find out who it belongs to."
"But how?" Justin's voice is higher than usual at the thought of someone being mad about this. Maybe mad enough to come looking for it? Maybe carrying-a-gun-and-going-to-burst-through-the-door-at-any-moment kind of mad? He grips Mama's arm with both hands as his imagination gets the best of him.
"Hush now. Don't let your mind get crazy. Let me think on this a minute." She peels his fingers from her arm and pulls her son into her lap, rocking him as she did when he was little. He may be nine now, but he's not ashamed to admit that the feeling does bring him some comfort, especially those times when they are both missing Daddy.
After a spell, when Justin has almost drifted to sleep, he sits upright, eyes wide. "Big dude. I bet it's his." A wave of guilt washes through him, remembering how he checked to make sure the man wasn't paying attention before he picked up the notebook.
"On the bus, you mean? Someone sitting nearby?" Justin nods as he slides off of Mama's lap, catching a yawn just in time to put his hand over his mouth because “it's polite to do so, young man. No one wants to see your tonsils." "Yes, Mama. I was sitting next to this man and he was looking at his phone the whole time. But the notebook was kind of on his side, I guess." He looks at her, his eyes round. "That means I stole it, right?"
Mama stands too, stretching her arms and neck muscles as if to ward off a headache. "If it was his book, and it might very well be, then you should have asked him when you picked it up. Or at least you should have given it to the bus driver. The bus company probably has a Lost and Found." Mama shakes her head, but she doesn't look angry now, just confused and maybe a little sad. Justin knows the look well.
Together they eat lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a glass of milk for Justin and a big glass of sweet tea for Mama. He makes her laugh with his milk mustache, and holds still as she wipes it off with the edge of her paper towel napkin.
"Go get yourself washed up. We'll go down to the bus company and turn this in." Mama takes the plates and glasses to the sink and washes them as Justin wipes the crumbs from the table and his chair. He wonders to himself how old he has to be before there are no crumbs on his chair, like there never are on Mama's.
Mama places the notebook carefully in her purse like she's afraid it might explode. After looking up the address of the bus headquarters, the two of them head out. There are forms to fill out, and a man with not so much hair on his head listens silently as Justin explains what happened. His eyebrows raise when he sees the amount of money, his lips thin like Mama's sometimes are.
The notebook goes in a manila envelope and "that is that" as Mama would say. Justin watches the man seal the envelope and place it in the safe. The dial is turned, locking the notebook away until someone comes looking.
Two weeks later...
Mama is waiting at the kitchen table when Justin comes home from school. In front of her is a letter, addressed to Justin. She hands it to him and he unfolds it, his first real mail.
"Dear Justin," he reads, "I want to thank you for your honesty in turning in the notebook, with all of the money still there. That was brave of you, and also the right thing to do. I'm lucky there are men in the world like you. Please accept this reward for your honesty. Yours truly, D. Spencer."
He takes up the envelope and peeks inside, glancing over at his Mama, whose eyes are lit up with pride. "One thousand dollars?" Mama nods, beaming. “I do believe we can get you a phone now.”
Written for a contest. Rules: no more than 2000 words, must contain a little black book and $20,000.