The airport conveyor belt sputtered to life, snaking along its stainless-steel path. I listened to my voicemail while I waited for my bag.
“Ms. Greer, this is Cedar Hills Rehabilitation. Richard was caught using. Unfortunately we have a zero tolerance policy…”
Behind my right shoulder, a boy’s distressed voice cut through the din of footsteps and reunions. “I put my backpack under my seat. It was gone after the flight.”
I turned and saw him – a young man, not a boy – talking on a payphone, the receiver squeezed between his right ear and shoulder. His blue coat overpowered his thin body.
“I looked, Mom! You’re like the people at the counter. They didn’t believe me either.” He pursed his lips, nodding quietly.
“I don’t know what to do.”
My phone buzzed. Just once. A text from my son, Ricky.
You have to help me.
My bag passed by on the conveyor belt. I made a feeble attempt to get past the waiting crowd, but my legs were stiff from the flight and I was too weary to chase after it.
The young man hung up the phone. He sat next to it on the ground, his knees pulled tight against his body. He has so much potential, I thought.
Ricky was six when I walked out. Married too young, I needed to follow my own dreams, become more than just a wife. I told myself he’d be better off with his father where there was money, stability. Maybe I just wanted to be free.
My son showed up at my small apartment one night in his only suit, determined to take me out for my birthday.
“You can have any pizza you want, Momma.” He held out the allowance he’d saved in his small wet palms.
I had work to do. Meetings to prepare for. I told him we’d do it some other time.
I walked over to the young man huddled next to the payphone. A cowlick made his brown hair stick up in the back. I resisted the urge to smooth my hand over it.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Is everything all right?”
He glanced up, confusion in his red eyes.
“My phone was stolen. My wallet and keys too. I asked them to stop people from getting off the plane, but nobody would listen. They called security on me.”
My phone buzzed.
I have nowhere to sleep.
Stop ignoring me.
Ricky turned forty last month. Said he wanted to get clean. That he meant it this time. His father refused to talk to him, but I could not live with myself if my son was on the street. I wrote a check.
I always did.
“I’m Barbara.” My smile wavered.
“Aaron.” He looked away.
I felt very old and useless.
“Can I call someone for you, Aaron?”
“My mom is traveling for work. My friends are still on vacation. I’m the only one that came back early.”
“What can I do to help?”
“I have no money. I need to go home.”
I could only withdraw $200 from the ATM.
“You need money for a cab. And a locksmith. You’ll need to buy food.” I held the crisp notes out to him.
“My mom will pay you back,” he said, putting the money in his pocket.
“Don’t worry about it.” I wrote my number on a slip of paper, grateful to help. “Please call if you need anything.”
Aaron hugged me, his long arms awkward around my shoulders. I had forgotten what it was like. He walked into the white winter evening, turning to wave before he disappeared in a cab. Only a few people were still passing through baggage claim on their way home.
My phone buzzed.
I turned it off, crying as my bag made another go-round on the empty conveyor belt.
Michelle Pretorius was born in South Africa, but calls Chicago her home. She is an MFA candidate in Fiction Writing at Columbia College.