Lilly had spent the last of her money — except for twenty-eight cents — on a box of saltines, a jar of peanut butter, and a gallon of apple juice. She clutched Elijah’s cold hand as she hurried them across the discount store parking lot. The shelves had been stacked with toys and boxes of candy, leftovers from Christmas; but all he had asked for was peanut butter crackers.
What was she going to do? This was supposed to be their fresh start, yet they were sleeping in the car again tonight. She squeezed her lips between her teeth, forcing herself not to cry.
“Can’t we go to Aunt Jamie’s house now?” Elijah asked, the words slurring because of the thumb in his mouth — a habit he had broken years ago until his dad started drinking again.
“I wish we could, Little Buddy, but I don’t have gas money right now. I’m sorry.” Without clean clothes and a babysitter she couldn’t get a job.
“It’s okay, Mommy.”
They reached their small beat-up car. It was the only thing she owned, having left everything else back at the apartment. She let go of Elijah’s hand and opened the door. She put their food in the back then leaned over to ready the booster seat.
“Look at this, Mommy.”
Lilly glanced over her shoulder. Elijah held a worn brown wallet in his hand. Holding her breath, she took it from him.
Her fingers trembled as she opened it. Inside, a smiling man looked up at her from a driver’s license ID. Nicholas Tyler. May 18, 1970. Ten years older than her. She shuffled through the card slot: three credit cards and one debit card — none of them expired. Mark had taught her to check for that.
Lilly’s stomach quivered and acid crawled up her throat. No! She didn’t want to think like that anymore. She wanted a fresh start with none of the tricks from her old life.
Sighing, she sat down on the edge of the back seat and Elijah came over to stand between her knees. She fingered the cash pocket of the wallet. But how could they have a fresh start if she couldn’t get them to Jamie’s house? Pulling her shoulders back, she opened the long pocket and quickly counted the stack of green bills. Ninety-seven dollars. She closed her eyes and prayed: All the mistakes I’ve made, Oh God, please allow me one more. I’ll pay Nicholas Tyler back, mail him the money and the wallet when I get to Jamie’s.
“We’ve gotta find that man, huh, Mommy?”
Lilly opened her eyes. Elijah smiled at her. The skin around his left eye, blue for a week, was finally turning yellow. That punch had been her wake-up call. Mark could take it out on her, but not on their son.
“This man has lots of money, Elijah.”
“He’ll be happy to get it back, huh? Do you think that’s his kid?”
Lilly looked down at the picture her son pointed at. A small boy sat in the man’s lap. He looked about the same size as Elijah, but the way he clung to his father’s neck made him seem far younger. Crap.
She got out of the car. No one had said it was easy to start doing the right thing.
“Come on, Little Buddy, let’s head back in. We’ll page this man and give him his wallet.”
“Good-o,” Elijah cheered. He swung her hand as they walked back to the store.
Lilly felt strangely relieved. Maybe after they returned the wallet she would find a shelter so they could sleep in a bed for the night. When she first left Mark she had been afraid to go to one, afraid they’d take Elijah away from her.
Maybe it was time to stop being afraid.
Inside the store, Lilly smiled at the fat green wreaths that still hung from the ceiling and the Christmas tree twinkling in the corner next to the information desk. Next year, she would buy a Christmas tree and presents for Elijah; she’d make sure of it.
Within minutes of paging Nicholas Tyler, Lilly spotted him walking toward them. He was carrying the boy from the picture.
“Hi Mister, we found your wallet,” Elijah announced before she could say anything.
“My wallet?” Nicholas patted his back pocket. “I didn’t know I’d lost it.”
Lilly smiled and handed it to him. “My son found it in the parking lot next to our car.” She waited for him to open it and check that everything was there. Instead, he held the wallet and studied her.
“It’s all there,” she blurted, her face filling with heat. The right thing or the wrong thing, she always did it wrong; he thought she’d stolen it.
Her head down, she reached for Elijah’s hand again. “Happy New Year.”
She had taken only a few steps before Nicholas grabbed her arm. She flinched and pulled away.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m just giving you some money, as thanks for returning my wallet.”
“Will it be enough to get us to Aunt Jamie’s house? Everything’ll be okay if we can get there.”
“Elijah!” Lilly frowned down at him.
Nicholas opened his wallet and handed all the money to Elijah.
“No, we can’t…” Lilly stuttered.
“Look, you did the right thing. If you hadn’t found my wallet I would have spent the rest of the day calling credit card companies. I’d rather spend it with my kid; I only get him on the weekends.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Lilly whispered.
He pulled out a business card. “Thank me by calling when you get to Aunt Jamie’s house. I’d like to know you’re safe.”
Lilly felt tears in her eyes again, but this time she didn’t stop them. Finally, a real fresh start.
Von Rupert lives with her family in Virginia where she homeschools her children and writes copy for her husband’s podcasting business. She’s a member of Writer’s Village University (WVU). Three times a year, she mentors writers at WVU’s free writing course, F2K. She blogs at http://wheretheshadowsmeetthelight.blogspot.com.