I grew up poor. Growing up poor can shape things about your personality that many people don't consider. Though I was a voracious reader from an earlier age, my house was not filled with books because they were about as practical as that overpriced toy all the kids were crying for. Food, electricity, water and basic necessities were hard to come by so books were not something in the budget.
Libraries were an absolute saving grace for a child who loved to read. School libraries and our public one. I'm a big believer in supporting ANY organization or cause that will help get a book into the hands of a child. My absolute FAVORITE presents of all time were two boxes of those condensed classics for kids. They were little square paperbacks with a few black and white illustrations inside. I nearly wept when I got them because they were MINE. I OWNED THOSE BOOKS.
Now, of course, I have 3 overflowing bookshelves and a massive Kindle log. Why am I rambling about this? Because when I read on some list site about a child who received a dollar to buy books, I felt a little hiccup in my heart. I had to write a story about such a scenario.
I will be the first to admit that the ending wasn't planned. I can't predict how my brain will work when I'm writing a story. Hope you still enjoy it!
Casey stuck her hand into her pocket to once again feel the hard metal discs that lay within. Her fingers traced each one while her lips formed the numbers one through four. When she had finished counting, she started again with the first coin.
Walking up to the front door of her town's only thrift store, a rundown version of Goodwill, she took a deep breath and pushed it open.
The whoosh of cool air came with the familiar scent of what Casey, even at 9 years old, knew to be decay and neglect. Items no one wanted in a space that was almost forgotten. Most of the rent houses Casey had lived in over the years smelled similar. Her clothes, which often came from this exact store, also held the lingering odor.
She didn't stop to think about the fact that most places didn't smell like this. Her cousins' house smelled of laundry detergent, while her best friend's house smelled like warm baking. Smells could tell you so much about a person without you ever meeting them. Casey had mastered the art of building stories around the unique smells of each structure she entered.
Her favorite smell, even though it was very similar to the thrift shop she was currently in, was the smell of libraries and books. Casey could smell a collection of books with ease. In each new school, each shopping center, even people's homes, Casey could close her eyes and follow the scent of books.
It was books that brought her to the thrift store that day. She had, over the course of several months, managed to hide four quarters. Christmas and birthday money always went to things she 'needed', like clothes or to help pay for the bills or groceries. These quarters, each a little secret all her own, had been hidden .
Most change she found went into a coffee can that her mom kept in the kitchen. Both Casey and her younger sister, Caitlyn, were expected to put all found change in that can. In this way, said their mom, they could contribute to the household until they were old enough to get jobs.
Until I'm old enough. Casey felt a little bitter at this thought.
It wasn't that her sister was spoiled, it was that Caitlyn was special. She had a learning disorder whereas Casey was considered 'academically gifted'. Casey was the one who handled the household chores, made sure the clothes were washed and dried and even got her sister up and dressed for school. Their mom worked two jobs and was rarely home. Even with two jobs, Casey knew they were poor.
Today, she thought, it doesn't matter. I have a whole dollar and I'm going to get those books!
This particular thrift store had a small book section. You could get a book for a quarter. With a dollar, Casey could get four books since the thrift store didn't charge sales tax. She owned no books of her own. All the many, many books she'd read in her lifetime were borrowed, mostly from the school library, though she was able to bike to the bigger public library when her mom had a day off and could stay with Caitlyn.
Every time they visited the thrift store, Casey always bee-lined for the book section. Many were novels for adults or very torn up and colored in picture books. Casey sometimes sat down on the cold concrete floor and read a few chapters from the novels. She had told herself she'd given up children's books long ago and only checked them out to read to Caitlyn, who hadn't learned to read early like Casey and, according to Caitlyn's teachers and yearly IEP, may never read fluently. Casey told herself she was only helping Caitlyn, but secretly Casey loved the stories more than some of the 'adult' novels she read to herself.
"Hello, darlin'!" A voice pulled Casey from her reverie. She slapped on a smile and looked up into a face she knew well.
Only two people ran the thrift shop and it was Casey's good fortune to pick the day in which Mr. Maury was there. The other worker, an elderly woman known as Mrs. Istre, did not like children or the poor but felt it her duty to run the shop to help such unfortunates. Casey was an especially thick thorn in her side.
Mr. Maury seemed old to Casey, but not as ancient as Mrs. Istre. He was a happy man who never seemed to dislike anything. He sometimes sneaked Casey a piece of candy when her mom wasn't looking. He didn't know that Casey always gave that candy to Caitlyn, even if she'd gotten her own piece from the man.
"All alone today?" He looked past his register to the door as if he expected Casey's mom to come in dragging a crying Caitlyn, which had happened before.
"Yessir." Casey said, she held out her hand, palm up, to show him the quarters. "I came for books."
Mr. Maury looked surprised but smiled down at Casey.
"Looks like you hit the lottery!" He said indulgently. "I don't think I've ever seen you or your mom buy a book though I've seen you reading them back there."
Casey closed her fists over the quarters and she clutched them to her chest. She felt a cold tremble as she thought about what he said.
How would her mom react if she came home with books? Casey could say they came from the library, but if the books never left her and Caitlyn's shared room, her mom would know. There was nowhere inside the small two bedroom shack they lived in to hide the books.
She had been so happy on her way over thinking about finally owning her own books. Now she felt dirty and selfish. A dollar could buy a pack of lunch meat for sandwiches or the cheap bread they always ate. Casey could use the money to get Caitlyn a candy or even a pack of the gum her mom liked.
You can't eat books and you can't wear 'em. You get enough of 'em at school. Casey heard the words her mom used every time she had asked for a book from the thrift store.
Casey felt the tears flow and a sob well up in her chest as she hugged the quarters.
"Oh, hon, what's wrong?" Mr. Maury came from behind the counter and knelt down by Casey. She backed away when he tried to touch her shoulder and cried harder at her loneliness.
The bell over the door tinkled and footsteps hurried in her direction. Casey's eyes were filled with tears so she couldn't see the person in front of her, but she could smell the stranger.
It was a warm familiar smell that enveloped Casey in a hug. The little girl tried to wiggle out, but stopped fighting the embrace because, somehow, she trusted it.
"It's okay, Casey." Said the stranger. "I've got you. It's going to be okay."
Casey heard the woman tell Mr. Maury that she was Casey's aunt, visiting from Colorado and she would take care everything. Casey would have told Mr. Maury she had no aunt in Colorado, that all of her family lived in Texas, but she was still crying too hard into the woman's soft blouse.
She smells like laundry soap and green apples and....books. Casey's mind was taking in the only part of the woman she could, even with her runny nose.
Casey felt cloth being wiped over her eyes then held in front of her nose. She wanted to tell the woman that she wasn't a child and didn't need anyone to blow her nose for her. For some reason she couldn't explain, she let the woman do this. Casey, who trusted no adult or any child older than herself, let this stranger who had lied to Mr. Maury take care of her.
It took several minutes for Casey to stop crying long enough to see clearly. The woman who was sitting on the cold and dirty concrete holding her, was smiling. Casey didn't know her, but wanted desperately to know who this person was.
The woman's clothes were nothing special. She was wearing a pair of jeans, black ballet flats and a dark green button up shirt. The buttons of the shirt were little leaves. Casey's hand instinctively reached out to touch the leaves, but pulled back before she actually did it.
The woman laughed and Casey stared up at her, entranced. The woman's laugh had been silvery. Casey felt she would do anything to make this woman laugh again.
"You always did like--" The woman cut her own sentence off and smoothed back a lock of Casey's hair that had fallen from her hair tie.
Casey stepped back from the woman, suddenly aware of her own shabbiness next to the beautiful black-haired woman. The woman, whoever she really was, could be identified as better. Casey knew her place when it came to better people. Bad things happened when you didn't.
The woman looked sad and reached out for Casey but the girl stepped back again. All of her old fears were coming back. She didn't know this woman and this woman was clearly a better class than Casey. It caused all sorts of alarm bells to go off in her head. No matter how much she wanted to run back to the woman and breathe in her scents, Casey refused her urge.
Sighing, the woman stood up from the floor and dusted the back of her jeans.
"I can only stay for a little while." She looked down at Casey, who felt impossibly short next to the woman. "But I'm here for a very special purpose."
The woman walked towards the back of the store, where the books were kept. Partway down the aisle, she turned back to Casey.
"Are you coming?" She smiled down at the girl. "You have to choose one or I won't be able to buy it before I go."
Casey stood her ground, still clutching the quarters. She wanted so much to follow this woman. A part of her said she would follow her anywhere if she could but another part didn't trust that at all.
The woman laughed again. Casey's heart fluttered at the sound.
"Okay, you win." She walked over to Mr. Maury. "Please let my niece pick out one every two weeks. This money is only for books, understood? If her mom asks, you will tell her that you're giving Casey the books for free because you were going to have to throw them out otherwise."
Mr. Maury smiled at the woman and took the proffered $20. Casey gasped when she saw that amount of money change hands. Her brain whirled with the thoughts of what $20 could buy in groceries or gas.
"I can't." Her voice forced the words out. "It's too much. I...I can't."
The woman turned back to Casey, her dark eyes serious.
"You have to." She said. "You don't have a choice. You can't use the money for anything in this store other than books. If I find out you got something for your mom or sister, other than a book, I will very sad."
Casey wanted to cry again but for different reasons. She was overwhelmed at the thought of $20 worth of books and the fact that she might ever do anything to make this woman sad.
The woman smiled at Casey and stepped towards her. When Casey took a step backwards, the woman's smile became sad but she simply turned around and walked out of the store.
"You're not at least going to tell her thank you?" Mr. Maury asked. "I know she's your aunt and all, but you still shouldn't be rude."
His words broke the indecision in Casey. She darted out of the store and looked for the woman, shoving the quarters in her pocket along the way. She felt a rush of fear when she couldn't find her at first. Running around the building, Casey huffed out her relief at seeing the dark hair spilling over the back of the green leaf shirt.
"Ma'am?! Excuse me!" The figure stopped and turned around. The woman was smiling bigger than Casey had seen yet.
Casey stopped a few feet from her and smiled back.
"Thank you." She said, feeling shy. "Thank you for the books."
The woman just nodded.
"D...do I know you?" Casey suddenly asked. "You knew my name and you're not really my aunt but you know me."
The woman laughed and shook her head.
"It's hard to explain right now." She said. "But one day, you will know me. And because you'll know me, I will be saved. This" she waved her hand to indicate the thrift store. "is the very least I can do."
She paused and looked at Casey in a way she'd never seen a person look at her. It was a look Casey had seen in TV shows and movies. It was a look of love.
The woman frowned at Casey for a moment, as if trying to make a difficult choice. Her face cleared and she came towards Casey, who tried to back up but felt she couldn't.
The woman knelt down and embraced Casey, pulling her whole body into the hug. Casey clutched the woman's shirt and held tightly.
"One day you'll meet a little black-haired boy named Danny," the woman whispered. "and you're going to be best friends. You're going to make everything okay for him and for me and it's because of that I'm going to say something to you that will get me in so much trouble."
The woman pulled back, tears in her eyes. She took a deep breath and clutched Casey's upper arms so hard the girl had to flinch.
"D...don't go to the Solaria Colony." The woman said. "I don't care what Misha tells you. The Babbage isn't what's wrong. It's no--"
Casey gasped as a popping sound filled her ears and the woman was suddenly gone. The warm scents of the woman was replaced with a sharp tang that Casey sometime smelled right before a big thunderstorm.
She unclenched her hand that had only recently been holding on to the unknown woman's shirt. Nestled between the fingers of her right hand was a green plastic button in the shape of a leaf.
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!