Lillian was hungry. The civilized part of her brain told her to wait until she got back home to start eating the warm dinner that Teddy had brought out to her. The rest of her brain–and the majority–told her that it would be cold by the time she got home, and she didn’t want to eat a cold dinner in a cold trailer where she had no power and no heat.
This was why she walked over to the nearest bus stop, hunkered down on a bench, and opened up the container of food. As the smell hit her again, she gave a happy sigh. It was then that she realized she had no fork. Lillian let out a small growl. She had choices, she thought. She could eat like a heathen, or she could find some utensils. She took a bite of the chicken, wiped her mouth with her coat sleeve, then put the chicken back on top of the potatoes before she closed the styrofoam box, and walked to the nearest gas station.
When she entered, she noticed a young man standing behind the counter. She walked over to the self service food station and found a fork.
“Aha!” she said, smiling again. As she headed toward the door, she tipped her fork to the young man and said, “Thank you!”
“Wait a minute,” he called after her. Lillian stopped. She sucked her teeth, and got the eye roll out of her system before turning around to answer him.
“Yes?” she said, pasting an unconvincing smile onto her face.
“You can’t just take that fork,” he said, gesturing for her to come to the counter.
Dammit, she thought. “Aren’t they free?” she asked him.
“Yeah, free with the purchase of food.” He looked annoyed. “You’re gonna have to at least buy something if you want to walk out of here with that fork.”
“Seriously?” she could feel the tears stabbing at her eyes. Please don’t cry in this convenience store. Please don’t do it, Lillian. It was too late.
“I don’t have any money,” she wailed. “Do you think if I had money to buy something, I would have been standing in line down the street at that soup kitchen? And then that awful cow of a woman would never have started a fight with me, and I wouldn’t have gotten kicked out while she sits smirking at me with her stupid, cow face.” Lillian stopped to cough, and wipe her nose and eyes on her coat sleeve. “I didn’t want any of that, and if I had money, I sure as Hell wouldn’t have spent my night this way. I just want a fork to eat my damned chicken…and my damned mashed potatoes. I’m just hungry. I spent all day trying to find a job, but no one is hiring, and those who are don’t want me. I’m either too old or too experienced. How can a person BE too experienced? And this cough…this stupid cough–” she stopped herself then.
She knew she was rambling, but she couldn’t stop herself. It was like the words were escaping faster than she could think them. Finally, she managed to regain her composure. She walked to the counter, placed the fork delicately on the counter, and turned to go. At the door, she stopped again. Without looking at him, she said, “I’m so sorry. It’s just been a terrible day. None of this is your problem. I’m sorry. Have a nice night.”
She walked over to the side of the store, hoping to find a place to sit in private, so no one would see her eating like an animal. She hunched down next to the wall, thankful at least for the wind block it provided, and began digging into her food. She tried not to think about the fact that her hands were dirty by now, or what she probably looked like hunched next to this building in the dark. She tried not to think about how it had come to this. How close to losing everything she was. About how the only thing left to her name was her trailer. The odd jobs and plasma donations had been enough to keep her from getting evicted, but now that she couldn’t donate, she barely had enough to do that, let alone enough to keep the lights on, or the gas connected, or to bring food home. At that moment, Lillian tried not to think of any of that. She just focused on eating her now cold dinner.
A moment later, she heard a voice beside her. “Here,” the young man from the store said. He knelt down next to her, handing her a fork and a small bag.
As she looked at him, her brow furrowed, she asked, “What’s this?”
“It’s not much,” he told her. “Just some snacks, some tissues, and a packet of cold medicine.”
Lillian looked in the bag to find even more than what he mentioned. There were a couple of containers of orange juice, some bottled waters, and a hat and pair of gloves from one of the displays she’d noticed inside.
“I can’t possibly accept this,” she told him, offering the bag back to him. “But, thank you. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
“Don’t be silly.” He pushed the bag back toward her. “Just–just take it. It’s practically nothing, but it’s what I can do, so just take it, would you?”
Lillian didn’t know what to say. She told the young man so.
“Please,” he said. “You remind me of my grandmother. I just–I would want someone to help her if she were in your position.”
Grandmother? Lillian wondered how haggard the day had her looking. She was 50 years old. She was not old enough to be his grandmother. Grandmother…pft. She tried to ignore the remark about her age, and just focus on the kind gesture.
The young man, whose name was Devin, had to leave Lillian then to go back into the store. He said he was breaking the rules by not being near the front door, and he didn’t want to get into trouble. Before leaving, he helped her up, a gesture which Lillian found unnecessary, but she let him help. He also told her he’d left a good luck charm in the bag for her. She stifled a snort. A good luck charm wasn’t likely to help, but he was sweet, so she smiled and thanked him, before packing up her things and beginning her walk home.
* * *
Lillian thought that spotting the old cow getting off at the bus stop around the corner from her house was probably the best proof that her luck was not likely to improve. As if to further prove Lillian’s hypothesis, the woman spotted her, and began speed walking in Lillian’s direction.
“Just kill me now,” she pleaded toward the sky as she heard the cow’s footsteps behind her.
“Excuse me,” Lillian heard her say. She ignored the woman and kept walking. She thought about running, but didn’t want to cause herself a coughing fit. She turned a corner and quickened her pace slightly, hoping to lose the woman.
“Excuse me,” she heard come from behind her. This time, the cow sounded angry.
Lillian quickened her pace. The cold air was already burning her lungs. It wasn’t long before she started to cough again. She tried to push through–she could see her trailer just a few lots away–but she had to stop. The coughing was uncontrollable now. She took in as much air as she could, trying to move the unmovable obstruction with each cough and sputter.
Within a couple of seconds, the cow had caught up to Lillian. At this point, Lillian was coughing so much that she was finding it hard to catch her breath. This, of course, caused her to panic, which only made the situation worse. She felt a hand on her shoulder as everything around her began to grow darker, and fuzzy.
She could hear the cow saying something to her, but it was all muffled. She couldn’t make out the words. She grappled around, feeling for somewhere to sit or to rest. She tried to slow her breathing, but the pain in her chest wasn’t helping her to remain calm.
She felt a hand rubbing circles on her back. “Shhhhh,” a voice said. “Deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.”
Lillian looked up to find that the voice belonged to the cow. She figured it had, but still found herself surprised by the kindness and concern the woman was expressing.
“Where do you live?” asked the woman. “Is it close?”
Lillian didn’t trust herself to talk, so she pointed toward her trailer. The two women shuffled down the sidewalk and across the street, Lillian guiding them the short distance with gestures, until they were in front of Lillian’s double wide.
“This one,” she said, still a bit winded.
“Let me help you get in and settled,” said the cow. Lillian made a mental note to ask the woman her name at some point.
The two women entered the trailer, and Lillian began walking around the living room, turning on a couple of battery powered lights, and fumbling for matches to light candles. When she was done, a nearly empty room was illuminated. In the far corner, sat a worn recliner with a pile of blankets neatly folded on the floor beside it.
“Where is all your stuff?” asked the woman.
“Sold it,” Lillian said, making her way to the kitchen. After sitting her plastic bag down on the counter, she turned on the faucet and pulled two cups from the cabinet. “Can I make you some tea?” she asked the woman.
“You don’t have a stove,” the woman said, looking into the kitchen.
“I know that,” Lillian said, a bit snappy, and still out of breath. She filled the cups with water, and pulled out her five-wicked candle–a splurge she had purchased herself last year for Christmas–and lit it. She placed the candle under a wire rack, and sat the two cups on top of it. The woman watched Lillian with amazement.
“Does that work?” the woman asked.
“Kind of,” Lillian said. “It doesn’t get the water very hot, but it knocks the chill out a little bit.
Seemingly satisfied by this answer, the woman walked over to the counter separating the kitchen from the living room, and leaned on the side opposite Lillian.
“My name is Susan,” she said.
“I’m Lillian. I suppose it’s nice to meet you. Officially.” It wasn’t exactly nice to meet the woman who had contributed to such an awful day, but at least Susan had tried to help her earlier. Which reminded Lillian, “Why were you chasing me?”
“The woman looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t exactly chasing you. I just saw you, and I really wanted to apologize. I was awful to you earlier, and I don’t know what got into me.”
Lillian didn’t say anything for a moment. She was debating whether or not to apologize for her part. She hadn’t been the one to start it, but there was something about an apology that made her want to reciprocate. Plus, it didn’t seem like a good time to start holding grudges.
“Look,” she said after a moment. “We’re good. I’m sorry for my part, too. It was just a really bad day, and I was acting childish.”
“You were?!” Susan laughed. “Sweetheart, you had nothing on me. I was rude to you from the moment you stood behind me. Please, forgive me. I had no right to treat you that way.”
“It happens,” Lillian said. She placed a tea bag–her last new one–into one of the cups and handed it to Susan. She pulled a used one from a saucer by the sink, and placed it in her own cup. Susan noticed, and cringed, but had the decency to say nothing. She simply thanked Lillian for the tea.
“Can I ask what brought you to the soup kitchen?” She asked Lillian.
Lillian gestured around the room. “Not exactly living the life or Riley,” she said. Susan said nothing, so she continued. “I lost my job about a year ago. Did everything I could to find new work, but haven’t had any luck. Finally had to start selling stuff just to keep my trailer. I was donating plasma as often as I could, and that kept things going for a while, but they won’t let you donate when you’re sick. So, I went from stopping by the kitchen for the occasional meal, to having to go every day just to eat something. I’m 50 years old, and my life and my body are falling apart on me. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” For what seemed like the millionth time that day, tears stung Lillian’s eyes.
Susan walked around the counter and wrapped her arms around Lillian. Instead of pulling away, Lillian just let the woman formerly known as “Cow” hug her. She cried until the pressure in her chest grew too strong and she had to cough some more. Then she pulled away from Susan, and began coughing into her sleeve.
As if this reminded her something, Susan grabbed her purse, and began digging through it. She pulled out a small tub of medicated chest rub.
“Here,” she said. “I picked this up, hoping I’d see you again. It’s for your cough.”
“Thank you,” she said. “But, it won’t help.”
“Sure it will,” Susan said. “I’ve never met a cold this stuff can’t fight. Been using it since I was a kid. Even when I worked at the hospital years ago, never saw something this stuff couldn’t help. I swear, you could stick it on a broken leg, and it’d heal right up.
Lillian laughed and took the ointment Susan held out to her. It made her think of the cold medicine in the bag. She could trade her for it. She didn’t like owing people.
When she took the small box out of the bag, she noticed a small piece of paper with a note stuck to it. I hope your luck changes soon, the note said. Lillian sighed. When Susan asked what it was, she showed her the note and the lottery ticket it was stuck to.
“I bet it does,” Susan said. “We just have to get you well, Lillian. Things will look better once you get healthy. Things are gonna turn around, I bet.”
“People keep telling me that,” Lillian said. “But they’re wrong.”
“How do you know?” Susan asked her. “Your luck could still change. You said yourself, you’re only 50.”
“I’m dying,” Lillian said, swallowing a sip of watered down tea. “Things don’t usually get better after a diagnosis like that.”