Ticket To Joy

“This is Yooo-llaaanda Vegar! Good evening and good luck! The jackpot is three hundred million dollars, and the winning numbers are…9! 24! 3! 57! 8! 6! And…4!”

The whisper of the black and white television was barely audible over the crackle of static and as Marcus watched the numbers flash across the flickering screen, he leaned forward and sprung from the bright green couch he was sitting on. Piles of yellow stuffing flew up into the air and slowly sank to the brown, matted carpet as he swiftly made his way to the kitchen and dining room.

The furtive shadows cast across the room by the dim light bulb on the ceiling were whisked away as Marcus opened the refrigerator door. He pulled out two cups of milk and quickly slammed it closed, the odor of days-old-mac-and-cheese pervading the musty air and adding to the distasteful smell of burnt oil. The scarred wooden table behind him rocked as Marcus placed the cups onto it and he took a step to the side to retrieve a jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread from the single cabinet pantry. Gently pulling the plastic bag from above, he revealed four, stiff slices and brought it to his nose, inhaling deeply. Marcus then began to turn it over repeatedly, searching for signs of an unwanted fur coat on the bread slice. Finding one at the corner, he flicked at it as if it had entertained him in the past, now too experienced to find any of it comical or fun. Green bread crumbs sprinkled over the table. With the bit off, he guided a knife into the jar and pulled out a thick chunk of peanut butter. Marcus tasted it with the lick of his fingertips before nodding to himself and dragging the knife onto the bread, layering the flaky corners with an extra coat. He repeated this process until all four slices were covered completely in a thin layer of peanut butter and free of their unwanted green friends. Marcus then topped the sandwiches and placed them onto separate plates.

Scrape the knife against the side of the peanut jar Marcus. Save, it’s what we’ve always had to do. Save son. Marcus thought, his mom’s words playing on loop. He slid the knife against the side of the jar and before placing it into the sink, wiped it with his finger. Licking the sweet and salty peanut butter off, he washed his hands over the knife and the plate he’d used earlier that night.

Sliding the cup along the worn table, Marcus arranged the two plates and cups on opposite sides of the table, the chairs aligned with them. Turning back around to face the sink and pile of grime-filled plates, he exhaled heavily.

“Marcus, you’re the best kid in the universe. Making sandwiches for Dad and Mom with a glass of nice cold milk. That’s sweet. And look, washing these plates.” Thomas paused, shaking his head in disbelief. “Marcus, what are you thinking? You don’t even have it bad here. You have your parents, a house. Food every day. Quit bugging about washing dishes. You’re a good boy, but you’re not wonderboy. Let’s just finish this and go to bed early tonight; need more sleep,” he groaned.

But no matter how hard Marcus tried to stop feeling pity for himself, it propelled back, slicing through the vines of maturity that laced his mind. Finally, the thought emerged from the foliage and undergrowth. Why can’t I be the lucky one? The one flying their remote control airplane? The plane would soar in the air and dive and twirl and spin! Boy, I wouldn’t mind having one of those…. The sound of Yollanda Vegar’s voice resonated in his memory however, and Marcus decided to leave his thought with the soap studs in the sink that slowly spun into the drain. Chuckling to himself about the lady’s voice, he pulled himself up straight and imitated the boisterous woman, laughing momentarily. Then he said out loud to himself, “Winning that lotto would be the best. We wouldn’t have to eat peanut butter sandwiches all the time. I would get some fresh lettuce, and some deli ham. Tomatoes even! And I would get Mom and Dad some pillows so they can sleep well in the night. Maybe they would even be able to quit their jobs with all that money. They wouldn’t have to scrub floors or lift boxes and come home tired and aching. And then maybe we could leave here for an apartment. With a dishwasher! Marcus, we’d be so much better off with all that money. We’d be happier.”

Marcus finished up the last dish and scrubbed it down well before watching the grime fall away and into the drainage hole. The last currents of water gurgled as it sank down and the boy washed his hands in cold water right after it all disappeared. Wiping his hands against the towel adjacent to the sink, Marcus thought about what he would do with the money again as he laid down on the couch.

“Hey, maybe I’d be able to get a decent plane. Nothing fancy, just something that would fly like the other boy’s planes. I would love that,” he muttered to himself.

Lying there, Marcus eventually heard the hum of silence buzzing in his ear, save the ticking of the clock on the wall, its hour hand in between the 10 and 11. The silence was almost deafening, the sound of laughter and giggles from its inhabitants usually causing the house to rumble in activity and mirth. At this time, with neither of his parents home, the house seemed empty, despite its small size and cramped rooms. In the roaring silence however, came a low, startling click by the kitchen and the heavier sound of a metal bar retracting into its original home. Soon the sound of the door creaking on its hinges ripped through the air and Marcus shot up from the couch, more yellow stuffing hovering in the air. He watched as a couple walked in, their faces grave but kind and welcoming. The woman smiled as she gazed at the awaiting sandwiches and called Marcus’ name.

“Marcus? Are you still up honey?” Her voice was hoarse and Marcus could sense that she was struggling to stifle a cough, the sounds of cannons firing from her chest seconds later confirming his belief. Patting her back was a stocky man with thick, knotted hair that resembled the carpeting of the living room. His sinewy arms were covered in scratches and scars, and as he lowered himself into the chair, he groaned. Finally sitting completely, he leaned toward the plate and his eyes darted about the room. Marcus popped out from the living room door and into the kitchen where he helped his mom and dad take off their shoes. Marcus’ father grinned at his son and sighed.

“Thank you Marcus. We’re truly sorry about tonight. I swear I’ll make it up to you buddy,” the man said. Marcus looked up from his mother’s petite shoe and beamed at his dad sleepily before responding.

“Don’t worry about it Dad. Just enjoy dinner, ‘kay?”

The father just smiled and took a massive bite into his sandwich, chewing heavily. Staring down at his thin, brown socks he then looked into the eyes of his wife who sat across from him. Her rounded face and deep brown eyes were surrounded by lines and shadows that were accentuated by the smooth skin that stretched across her gaunt cheeks. She hacked continuously as she ate, and each time, her eyes seemed to lose more of the brilliant luster that they once had. Sitting there, Marcus watched them eat- taking pride in each bite they took. He could tell they savored each bite and treasured it, proud of him for being considerate and understanding of the situation. Yet there was a distant pain in the way they were bent over and their eyes roamed around the room. It was further than a day of rigorous and exhausting work; a look of guilt seemed recognizable. Then, as he stared at his father’s handsome, but unkempt countenance, Marcus realized what it was. That pain that he saw was from the soul, a deep cry that screamed for a better life and the shame of having to eat a dinner made of a mere sandwich. It was the knowledge that there was nearly nothing left in the pantry and no money left to replenish it. It was the embarrassment of having to admit that they couldn’t provide their own son with something better than what they had sitting there in silence. Knowing that every day was a struggle and that their child, the kind and open-minded boy anyone could have hoped for, would continue to live this horrible life.

As Marcus’ father finished the last bite of his homemade sandwich, he gingerly reached into his back pocket and slowly pulled out a thin sheet of paper. Eventually, after numerous winces, he planted it onto the table muttering inaudible words. Like a ritual, as his father set it down Marcus discreetly took the lottery ticket from the table and walked to the couch to look at the six precious numbers. The voice of the lotto number announcer looped in his head as he viewed the numbers and compared each one.

Nine. Comon. Nine. Marcus thought to himself. The first number was an eight, but as he scanned the following digits, he saw a nine and stifled a squeal of excitement. He recognized the uselessness of having one number and moved onto the next. Twenty-four. Beside the nine in the sequence of numbers, he found the two digit number and grinned. Inside, a boiling vat of excitement bubbled as he continued to compare in success, five numbers already matching up with their lotto counterparts. Marcus, on the verge of leaping in the air with excitement, slowly slid his finger across the thin, crinkled paper with his head held back and eyes squinting. This is it Marcus. All those days looking at total flops. This could be it. This can’t be happening! However, as he revealed the last digit, Marcus felt the world zoom back into proportion and the bubbling vat cool until the water no longer boiled over in thin, foamy bubbles. Before him, with his whole life depending on that last number, sat a seven, its sharp edge driving into his head and scarring it as he realized the winning number was a four. He sat there stunned, the numbers starting to move and wiggle, blending together in a blob of white and black and orange. The voice of his father however, interrupted his tears.

“Marcus? How’d we do?” The man asked with a hint of hope and anticipation.

“Nah Dad. Only five of the numbers match with no powerba-”

Marcus stopped as he looked at his father, a bewildered expression plastered to it. His eyes were still drooping but glimmered with ecstasy. He now spoke clearly and articulated every word with caution, afraid that one mistake would ruin the moment.

“Marcus. Do not lose that blessed ticket. Boy, with or without that powerball, we just….” The words seemed unreal and the man startled Marcus as he stormed over and grabbed the ticket from Marcus’ hand excitedly. His eyes darted across the paper. Marcus looked in disbelief at his dad and smiled inside. He remembered only a few minutes ago the dull and dejected facial expression that his father had which was now replaced by a wide grin that created colossal and almost unfamiliar wrinkles around his eyes and nose. Still, Marcus was confused by the sudden spark of happiness.

“Dad, what happened! I told you, we didn’t win. We lost the last number. The one that grants you all three hundred million! It’s useless Dad!”

“Marcus…it’s not! We just…. We just….What were those numbers?”

“Dad! What is it! Just tell me!”

His father’s voice lowered to a whisper and he suddenly spoke furtively. “Marcus, if you’re right…we just won a million dollars….”

Marcus’ eyes whipped open, any sign of fatigue washing away with this new interest. “Let me see Dad,” Marcus said, snatching the paper rudely back. “Sorry,” he said quickly before he scanned the number and jogged his memory, looking each number over again and again. The more he looked at the seeming matching numbers, the more he doubted it. “I think so Dad,” Marcus said, barely able to project his voice with a sudden dryness in his throat. “A million Dad?”

Getting up in disbelief, he held the slip in his hand and smiled. It’s happening Marcus. This is for real. We’re going to be all right now.

* * *

Marcus lay still on the black leather couch. The sink was empty and two sandwiches sat on the granite island with a cup of milk beside each plate. The hum of silence roared in Marcus’ ears and he stared at the second hand on the clock. It clicked before moving to its next mark and often stopped sporadically, time freezing. When the hour hand slid to the 11, Marcus waited for the sound of a door to click, but none came. Hours passed, yet glitches in time made it seem like days. By 1, the sandwiches filled with ham and lettuce and freshly cut tomatoes were now soggy piles of cold meat and slimy pieces of vegetables. After what seemed like years later, the sound of the screen door swinging open on its rusty hinges sliced through the silent air and rung in Marcus’ ear. He woke with a start and rose from the couch, his eyelids drooping over his eyes as he walked toward the foyer. Pulling a chair and sitting next to the table, Marcus watched as his parents walked in with flushed faces and dazed expressions. The smell of cigarettes and alcohol lingered on their clothes and encased them in a drunken stupor. They staggered over, and without greeting their son, stumbled into the chairs and planted their heads on the table to sleep. Marcus, frustrated and filled with anguish, sat there staring furiously at the two adults. Then, he abruptly took the two porcelain plates and violently swept them off the table. Marcus’ parents cringed at the sound of the plates crashing to the floor and shattering to millions of fragments; the jarring idea of destruction and loss forming deep cracks like nerve endings in the shield of disregard that they held before them. The sandwich bread and meat and lettuce now lay scattered apart in the center of the garden of glass. The adolescent then began to speak, his voice cracking as quickly as the plates with emotion and passion.

“What happened to you Mom? Dad? I’ve waited each and every night for you! Waiting for the old you to come back. I remember before all this money and luxury, we were a family. We struggled, but we enjoyed what we could and made the best with what we had. We had each other when all hope was gone and nothing was left for us to believe in. I never asked for more, because I knew you both had to work fifteen hour shifts to pay for rent and get by. I understood that. I did my part to help when I could. Do what I could to make your lives easier because I knew that each day you woke up, you were willing to put your time and effort into supporting me. But what are we now? I wait for you every night for hours to come home. And you never do. You guys leave me here, alone…,” Marcus said, his words trailing off. His parents were awake now, staring at their son with a blank expression on their faces. “Money has given us food, an apartment. But it’s stripped us of what we know best: loving one another and providing memories that keep us going! It’s all gone though. Money’s taken all of it from us, but it won’t buy it back! Mom. Dad. Please come back to me! You can’t ignore me! I would do anything to go back now. I used to think that perhaps money would improve our lives and bring more happiness to us all. Please Mom, Dad. Don’t leave me alone. I’m scared to face it all by myself….”

Confused and conflicted, Marcus was insecure. His parents’ expressions of shock and appearances of being overwhelmed comforted him less and Marcus just lost all hope. Alone, he fell apart and broke down; yet, with each teardrop that stained his face, they came back to life. The look in their eyes returned and they suddenly understood; together they moved and hugged one another. Standing beside a mess of food and glass, the three of them embraced, piecing their past lives back together in that moment and seeing things clearly for the first time.

Lawrence Kwong, Age 13, Grade 8, Mark Twain I.S. 239 for the Gifted and Talented, Gold Key

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