An ordinary school day becomes quite extraordinary
| Justin scowls, arms folded across his skinny chest, waiting for the bus. It's not like he wanted to go to school anyway, but Mama promised to kick his butt if he didn't.
The Number 47 lumbers into view, blinker on, and pulls to a stop. Hoping for cool, Justin scans his card with a chin nod at the driver and makes his way down the aisle, grabbing on to a seat back as the bus lurches back into traffic.
The only empty seat is next to a big dude, but he doesn't look too scary, so Justin eases himself in, pulling his backpack off and holding it in his lap briefly 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, fiddling with the strap on his backpack, 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", and all of his pleading and whining about the other kids having their own phones only gets him a hands-on-hips lecture.
Leaning down to open his pack, intent on finding a piece of candy or maybe to eat some of the lunch Mama handed him in a worn brown paper bag before he left the apartment this morning, Justin's eyes rest on a small black book on the floor, and 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 it into his backpack and zips up hurriedly, snack search forgotten.
The bus pulls to a stop and Justin grabs his pack, racing down the aisle, leaping over the steps and hitting the pavement, in a hurry to get somewhere he can examine his find more thoroughly. He runs down the sidewalk, skidding to a halt halfway down the block when he realizes that this wasn't his stop.
He looks around to get his bearings and spies a McDonald's, hitching his pants up and nonchalantly waiting for a group of grown ups to come out before ducking under an outstretched arm that holds the door open, making a beeline for the restroom.
With his heart beating hard, both from running and also from the thought of having something that doesn't belong to him, Justin locks himself in a stall, hanging his pack on the coat hook inside the door and unzipping it only enough to take the book out.
He undoes the elastic band that holds it closed, carefully opening to the blank page where he sees the bill still peeking out, blinking several times and then rubbing his eyes, because 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 of his fingers tells him that it feels like real money, but is there even such a thing as a $10,000 bill?
Justin flips through the pages, pulse still pounding, to see if there's anything written on them. He doesn't find any writing, on any of the pages. What he finds though, are nine more bills, all $10,000 each.
With hands that shake so hard he can't hardly pull the elastic over the front cover, the notebook goes back in his backpack and the pack goes on his chest, zipper facing towards him, dork style. If any kid from school sees him he'll catch some hell, 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, 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, putting 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 on the bus, Mama." He holds it up to her and she takes it from his hand, 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, stopping 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 "take your feet off of there" and 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's chin and eyes are down as he confesses, lifting his eyes for a moment and then 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", and 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 it, 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." Justin shifts to face her, resting his elbow on the back cushion. "Is it real money, do you think?" Curiosity getting 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's glance goes to the notebook again, and then back to 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 a hundred thousand dollars in that blank notebook."
Just on the verge of asking whether they might keep the money when out pops 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 clasps Mama's arm with both hands, fingers digging into the soft flesh, 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 with his head on Mama's shoulder, he sits upright, eyes wide. "Big dude. I bet it's his." A wave of guilt washes through him, remembering how he looked up 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, realization dawning. "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 big glass of milk for Justin and a big glass of tea for Mama. He makes her laugh with his milk mustache, and holds still as she wipes it off carefully 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, wondering how old he has to be before there are no crumbs on his chair, like there never are on Mama's.
Mama places the closed notebook carefully in her purse like she's afraid it might explode, and 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 and a rumpled white button-down shirt listens silently as Justin explains what happened, raising his eyebrows when he sees the amount of money, his lips thin like Mama's sometimes are.
And then the notebook goes in a manila envelope and "that is that" as Mama would say, Justin imagining her clapping her hands together after sealing the envelope and placing it in the safe, except that it's the man whose hand turns the dial, locking the notebook away until someone comes looking.
Two weeks later...
Mama is waiting at the kitchen table when Justin comes home from school, a letter in front of her, addressed to him. 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 happiness and pride. "Twenty thousand dollars?"
Written for a contest. Rules: 2000 words, must contain a little black book and $20,000.