‘ISO the owner of this list.’ I typed into my post before adding the photo. ‘To whom it may concern,’ I went on, musing at the formality of the post. ‘I am seeking the owner of this list, found at the local discount store on 2nd Street.’ I tagged the location, just in case.
It was a piece of notebook paper I found in the aisle at the discounter where I was picking up paper plates and a few other supplies for a co-worker’s birthday at my office. I had been in a hurry and, frankly, in a bad mood. The holidays, year-end, deadlines, no time, no sleep. Getting stuck handling the shopping for a co-worker’s birthday really wasn’t helping. I hardly even knew Carol. When my boss asked me to pick up the supplies, the word “who?!” was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. Thankfully, he laughed and reminded me she was the blond who sits in the cubicle next to Steve. I still had no idea who Carol was and had to look her up on our company directory. Then I remembered being behind her in line at the coffee bar a few weeks ago. She took way too long to order her latte. And it still didn’t make me care that it was her birthday. But here I was, picking up birthday themed plates and napkins. I was considering a disposable table cover when I spotted the folded up piece of paper on the floor. I was going to walk past it but instinct told me to pick it up.
It had been folded up carefully despite the deckle still being attached. I opened it slowly. Written in juvenile block letters, in green magic marker was a list:
New shoes for Blake
New car for Mom and a job
A house with no leaks in the roof
A scarf, a coat, and mittens for Cole
There was a large, uneven, asterisk at the bottom of the page followed by the works ‘Ask Santa’.
My heart broke. Somewhere out there was a child whose family clearly needed some help. Suddenly, I felt incredibly selfish for getting so irritable over the minor inconvenience of my errand. Funny how something so simple can change your perspective.
I don’t know what I was hoping would happen by posting the list online. Probably nothing would happen. It would get a few likes, maybe someone would share it. I would certainly never find the owner of this list. Before I clicked post, I hesitated that putting this out there could possibly embarrass someone. But then I decided if it could possibly get someone some help, then it was worth it. Didn’t people like Ellen pick up posts like this and then give people cars and pay off their debt? I set my phone aside and went to sleep.
Somewhere in the night, I was back in that discount store. Coming down the aisle by the party supplies, was a little girl in a tattered pink coat with a broken zipper, trudging along behind her mother in boots that were just a little too big. Her mittens were threaded through her coat sleeves by strings and swung as she walked, struggling to keep up. In her hand, was the piece of notebook paper. Her mother wasn’t wearing a coat. She looked tired and careworn.
“Come on, Sarah. Hurry up,” the woman called as they approached the check out counter. The list fell from Sarah’s hand as she darted off, down another aisle before her mother noticed.
I watched as the woman unloaded some off brand grocery items onto the conveyor.
“Momma, can I get this?” asked Sarah, holding up a small coloring book with a packet of three crayons tucked in the package. This was the sort of discounter where everything was a dollar.
“Not today,” said Sarah’s mom, not looking at Sarah or the book in her hands. “Put it back.” Sarah’s head dropped in defeat as she shuffled away to put her treasure back.
The store clerk gave the total. I watched as Sarah’s mom shuffled through her purse. A look of shame washed across her face as she looked at the items, deciding which she could make it a little longer without. She didn’t have enough money. I wanted to step forward. To pay the whole bill and tell little Sarah to bring back that coloring book with the three little crayons. But this was one of those dreams where I couldn’t move or speak. All I could do was watch as Sarah’s mom left behind three of the items from her cart.
Sarah and her mom made their way out. I was suddenly in the parking lot. They climbed into a rusted van. I couldn’t really say what make it was or what color. It was more rust than van. The engine sputtered a few times, refusing to start. Finally, the engine turned over. One of the tail lights was out. The van’s engine threatened to quit as it backed out of the parking space but it recovered and the van pulled away.
The next scene was the van, parked outside a dilapidated little house, in a dingy neighborhood I normally wouldn’t visit. Somehow I found myself standing in a dimly lit living room with a broken sofa and recliner with a tear in the fabric. The old tube style TV was perched on a tray table that didn’t look strong enough to hold the weight. Around a folding table with uneven legs sat Sarah and two other children. These must be Blake and Cole. Sarah’s mom dished out plates of a boxed pasta dinner. The servings looked too small for growing children.
“There’s fruit cocktail for dessert,” said Sarah’s mom as she sat down with her own plate. A slice of bread with a thin smear of peanut butter. The three children dug into their plates eagerly.
“This is real yummy, Mom,” said one of the boys. She smiled at him, weakly.
“Momma, can we go see Santa this weekend?” Sarah asked cheerfully. Sauce from her dinner dripped down her chin.
“We’ll see,” she responded. “Now wipe your chin.” Sarah swiped the back of her hand across her face.
“I know what I’m going to ask Santa for this year,” Sarah announced. Her mom gave her a pained smile, probably trying to find the words to tell her little girl that Santa wouldn’t be coming this year. Because there wasn’t money in the budget for any gifts.
And just like that, the scene in front of me faded. My eyes opened to the glow from my alarm clock, tucked into my warm bed. No hunger pangs in my stomach. Tears rolled from my eyes, wetting my pillow as I tried to get back to sleep.
In the morning, as I predicted, my post about the list got a few likes, a few comments and two shares. My post had done nothing to help. So I went into the office early. I put together a quick flyer, with the picture of the list, and posted copies all over the office. Over the next few days, donations of food and toys poured in. It wasn’t a new car, or a new job, or a house with a roof that didn’t leak. But hopefully the some of the donations from my co-workers would make their way into the hands of the author of the list I found in the aisle of the discount store. And one child’s holiday would be just a little brighter this year.
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This story had a strong string of deep empathy woven through it. The end was slightly different to what I was expecting___a meeting and then, voila, some happy news___yet, Heidi, your story was very interesting.
Such a kind story, short and sweet. I like the way it flows and twirls through the lives of normal-enough people, finding dropped lists and donations food and toys. It almost has a fantasy feel, despite being very real...
Didn’t end how I expected which was a surprise. Unpredictable and very interesting! Would have loved to continue reading more and more. Great writing!