The next morning was as cold as the day before had been. The only difference that Lillian could see was that snow was blowing sideways outside of her front windows. That, and the snoring pile of blankets laying on the floor next to her recliner. Lillian was awakened by the loud and grating sounds coming from the center of the blanket cocoon.
The snow had started to fall heavily the night before, and she felt badly about sending Susan out into the near-blizzard. Instead, she offered the woman a place to stay for the night, after learning she had recently lost her home. When she saw that the snow was still coming down the next morning, Lillian was glad that she’d been so insistent.
The pile of blankets stirred then, and gave a loud snort that was quickly cut off by silence. Was she dead? Lillian pushed the blankets with her foot. Nothing. She pushed again–harder this time. When Susan still didn’t respond, Lillian got down on the floor and began shaking the woman.
“Susan,” she said as she removed the blankets. “Are you OK?”
Susan woke up with a jump. She starred wide-eyed at Lillian for a moment, seemingly trying to figure out where she was and what was going on.
“You stopped breathing,” Lillian told her before she’d had a chance to say anything. “I thought you died.” She sat down next to Susan coughing, and still holding her chest with relief.
“Oh,” Susan said, gaining some composure. “Is that all? I do that all the time. It’s called sleep apnea or something.”
Lillian had heard of the disorder, but had never experienced it up close. “Is there something you can do about it? It seems dangerous.”
“Oh sure,” Susan said. “Back before my husband died, I had a little machine. It would keep me breathing and all that good stuff, but it finally gave out on me, and they’re too expensive to replace. Not to mention, they require electricity. There’s also a surgery, but again…”
“Expensive,” Lillian finished for her. She knew from her own recent medical experiences that women like them didn’t exactly get five star treatment. The Dr. Lillian had seen basically told her she had a tumor in her lungs that was inoperable, and she was going to die soon. To tell her how soon he’d have to run lots more tests, and she of course, didn’t have insurance or money to cover that kind of thing, so she told him not to do them. Not that he’d been very insistent on helping her further in the first place. He’d acted like he was doing her a favor when he told her the news. She’d been shocked: both by his diagnosis and by his horrible bedside manner.
It always seemed to come down to money, Lillian was starting to realize. When you had some, it was never enough, and when you didn’t have any, you might as well not exist. It was a sad way to spend the end of a life. She kept hoping every day to find a new way to make the end better–some way she could help others, or even just help herself –to not have to die cold and alone in her trailer. She did at least have a friend now, so maybe she wouldn’t have to deal with the “alone” part. That was, if Susan didn’t die in her sleep from lack of oxygen first.
“Couldn’t you sell your bag?” she asked Susan, pointing at the bag on the floor next to her. “Surely that could help pay for the surgery,” she suggested. Lillian didn’t know much about fashion, but she recognized the little tan Ls and Vs that repeated over the large bag’s surface. She knew that those little letters came with a large price tag because of a bag her mother used to carry.
“No way,” Susan snapped.
Lillian furrowed her brows. “Can’t that apnea thing kill you if you don’t treat it?”
“I’d rather be dead than sell my bag,” Susan said with a huff.
“Seems a bit dramatic,” Lillian mumbled to herself.
“Maybe to you. Maybe memories don’t mean anything to you.”
Lillian wondered if she was talking about memories of when she had money, or just memories of all the good times Susan and the bag must have shared. She imagined Susan and the bag sharing a coffee, frolicking on the beach, taking in a show. She had to stifle a laugh at her own mental joke.
“Memories mean plenty to me,” she said, still withholding a smile. “But things don’t.”
She worried that she’d overstepped–crossed some unknown line–when she saw tears fill Susan’s eyes. The small, plump woman bit the inside of her cheek, and tried to look away from Lillian.
“It’s not just stuff,” she said, sniffling. “It’s the last gift my husband gave me before…” she trailed off, and Lillian didn’t press further.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, putting her hand on Susan’s leg. I shouldn’t have suggested it without knowing the story. I just saw it, and thought, it could help you stay alive.”
“Look at me, Lillian,” Susan said. “It’s not exactly like I’m a great asset to society. I don’t think it matters much if I stay alive or not. Not that I want to die, but in the scheme of things, I doubt it would matter much.”
“Don’t you think that if you’re still here, that might be God…or the Universe…or whatever you believe in…don’t you think it might be their way of saying that there IS a reason for you to be here? That there’s purpose in it?”
Susan huffed again. “Says the woman who’s dying.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that–it’s easier for you to have a peace about the crappy state of things. You’re dying. It makes it easier for you to glamorize life when you know yours is about to be over.”
Lillian looked around. She didn’t exactly think that her current lifestyle could be seen as glamorizing anything, but she sort of understood where Susan could be coming from. “I don’t think I just see it that way now,” she tried to explain. “I think I’ve always seen it that way. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
A short time later, Lillian and Susan were walking together, arguing about whether or not to take the bus, when Lillian reached into her purse for her lip balm. Inside, she also found her lottery ticket, and the note attached to it.
“I don’t have money for the bus, Susan,” Lillian said, pulling the ticket out to examine it.
“I have enough change for both of us,” Lillian heard her new friend saying. She was busy reading the draw date on the ticket.
“Is today the 6th?” she said, interrupting Susan’s chatter.
“Uhh, yes,” Susan replied. “Were you even paying attention to what I was telling you?”
Lillian had a curious feeling in her stomach. More than just the soreness from too much coughing, she felt something akin to anticipation–anxiety riddled with something sweet–that she couldn’t quite explain. She took a pause to reflect on exactly what her issue was, and Susan finally nudged her.
“Lil? Can I call you Lil? Are you with us?” Lillian snapped out of her reverie, giving into a set of deep and painful coughs before answering.
“Yeah,” she said, working to hold in more coughs. “Yeah, I’ll take the bus with you. I’ll try to pay you back today.”
“Pay me back?” Susan sounded offended. “You gave me a warm place to sleep last night, and you forgave me for acting like a total cow.” Lillian laughed to herself, wondering how Susan could have guessed the name Lillian had given her during their first encounter.
When the two sat down in their bus seats, Lillian noticed a man across the aisle from her, reading a newspaper. More accurately, she noticed the newspaper. On the bottom of the page that was farthest from her, she could make out three of the five lottery numbers. She reached into her purse, and pulled out her ticket. She peeled up the sticky note and saw that three of her numbers matched the three she could see on the paper. Her heart fluttered. That had to be at least twenty bucks. She could pay the store clerk back for the ticket, maybe even some of the other items, and still afford a coffee– a piping hot coffee with lots of sugary sweet creamer. Lillian tucked the ticket back into her purse, and smiled through the round of coughs that hit her next.
“I’ll buy you a cup of coffee at the gas station,” she told Susan when she’d finally gotten her coughs under control again. They seemed to be worse today than yesterday. As she turned toward Susan to stare out the bus window, she wondered how much more time she had.
The two women entered the convenience store a few moments later. Lillian could hardly hold back her smile. When your life was ending on such an ugly note, it didn’t take much to lift your spirits. There were two lines to get to the cashier, and both were painfully long. She’d decided to cash in her ticket before pouring her coffee–just in case she’d read the numbers in the paper wrong. Susan was meandering around the store for reasons that Lillian did not understand, but she enjoyed the momentary break from her companion. She liked having the new friend, but she was so used to doing things alone. Having a constant sidekick took some getting used to.
When she approached the counter, she noticed that the same young man from last night was standing behind it, smiling at her. “Oh!” She said, happily. “I didn’t expect to see you this time of day!”
“Got stuck filling in for a no-show,” he told her. “How can I help you?”
“Well, it’s this ticket I have here,” she said, smiling at him. “I think I may have won a little something.” She coughed into the back of her closed hand for a few seconds before adding, “I’d like to share my winnings with you, of course.”
“That won’t be necessary.” He smiled as he took the ticket. He held it under a scanner behind the register, and Lillian heard a beep, and then an electronic voice announced “Winner! Winner!”
The young man’s eyes grew large, and he snatched the ticket away from the scanner. He then motioned for Lillian to step to the side, and he placed a “closed” sign up at his register. Lillian was confused. She’d heard the machine say her ticket was a winner. Why wasn’t he giving her any money?
“Ma’am,” he said in a low voice. Lillian curled her lip involuntarily. She hated being called Ma’am. It made her feel old. “I can’t cash this ticket out for you,” he continued.
Lillian’s shoulders fell. She’d had her heart set on that cup of coffee, and on paying the young man back for his kindness the night before. “Oh, I see,” was all she said. She didn’t understand why he would have been so nice the night before, only to try to abscond with her small winnings today. She had offered to share. Wasn’t that enough?
She wasn’t going to fight it. She had no case. He bought the ticket. The winnings were his. No one would believe her anyway. She wondered if it was too early to get in line at the soup kitchen. At least she’d be first, she thought to herself.
“No!” he whispered, seeming to understand what she was thinking.
He took her hand in one of his then, and placed the ticket into her open palm. He looked around, keeping his hand over the ticket like he was protecting it. “Ma’am, I can’t cash it out because it’s over the limit of what you can redeem outside of the lottery offices,” he said, his head getting closer to hers. “This ticket is worth a quarter of a million dollars.”
Lillian took in a sharp breath, and began to cough once more.