One Good Deed

The mirror’s surface remained devoid of any human reflection. Dirt and unidentifiable sludge kept her curly hair twisted into a tangled mess. Carefully applied charcoal dust and more dirt buried the features of her face in earthy cracks. Torn fabrics and layers of ragged coats hid her expensive undergarments. She was only disguising herself as a vagrant, not forcing herself to suffer every aspect of their misery. Besides, at her age wearing anything felt uncomfortable already. Everything dragged at her skin, chaffing or cutting in the worst places and almost nothing seemed to heal anymore. Eventually she would be nothing but a gibbering pile of cuts and bruises. She needed to finish this before that happened, or before someone made the decision for her. With one final turn in the mirror, she gave a snapping dismissal to herself and headed for the streets.

It had been years since she’d gone outside. While she had technically left her home on several occasions, she had never just spent time outdoors for the sake of being outdoors since the day she’d received the phone call asking her to come to identify the body of her last grandchild. Her family had not been large, but this was the twenty first century in a first world country. She hadn’t expected to be the last Goldenbaum standing. Children were supposed outlive their parents here, and the grandchildren outlive them. If you had a few descendants, your legacy was secure. You didn’t need to pump out fifteen kids in the hopes that a few would live long enough to do the same before they all kicked the bucket. She scowled up at the pale blue of the winter sky. “I had four kids. Two had kids of their own. Fifteen! That’s fifteen I could rely on! I was supposed to be done with this!” She screeched. A woman passing by gave her a small look before quickly hurrying on her way. Evalise sighed. Causing people to think she was psychotic wouldn’t help. Probably.

Sludgy snow quickly soaked through the sneakers she’d pulled from the trash can. January was a miserable time to be out on the streets, but it wasn’t as if getting sick would make life much worse. All about her, people moved about their own lives, worrying about their own problems. How many would notice hers? She let out a rattling cough and pushed her way into the throng. Most immediately pulled away, with those who hadn’t noticed her yet bumping past. Apologies called backwards automatically. Let the games begin, she thought. She tried to engage people. They politely dodged and smiled. A few scowled and pulled back with a sniff. She shrugged and kept trying. Someone would speak with her eventually. “Excuse me, but—” The gentleman shoved roughly past her, not breaking concentration on the tirade he was giving over the phone.

“Miss, if I might have a moment of your ti—”
“—I gave at the office.”

“Sir, may I ask—”
“Not interested.”

“Madam, cou—”
“Shelter’s that way.”

“Ma’am—” Eva broke off as she dodged the apple core the woman tossed in her direction. The cold from the sludge soaked shoes had migrated up to her knees, so rather than catching her balance afterward, she found herself in the plowed snow banks. A couple people glanced her way, but continued on when she seemed unharmed. She sat in the bank a moment to give someone a chance to come forward to help her up. No one did. She snorted.

“I need a break.” A quick peek at the clock a little further down the street told her she’d only been trying for half an hour. She stamped her foot a little as she stood. She was too old to be patient and she had been hoping to get this over with quickly. It wasn’t a complicated task. Give it to the first person to help her. Thirty minutes and one perfect opportunity without a single winner. She imagined her husband laughing at her hurry. He had always teased her about her inability to wait for anything. He helped keep her steady and calm whenever she tried to race off the rails. He died in a car accident on his 43rd birthday. They never did find the drunk driver of the Mustang that hit him.

She walked over to a coffee stand a block away, carefully pulling out a couple dollars from the billfold she had hidden in the third layer of coat rags. “A cup of black with two sugars, please.” The cashier rang up the total and held out his hand for the money, not even grabbing a cup first. She handed him the bills and scowled as he held them up the light, put them in the register, wiped his hands and then began pouring her coffee. Perhaps the disguise was too good. He set the cup on the counter, letting her grab it without contact. “Thanks,” she said brusquely. He didn’t respond as he motioned the next customer forward. She took the cup in both hands, letting it warm her aching joints and moved carefully over to a nearby bench. A layer of ice covered the bench beneath spots that had been brushed clean by people who had hoped to sit there before deciding it wasn’t worth the effort of clearing the ice. She plopped right down. A cold bottom didn’t bother her in the least. She had grown up in Alaska. She knew how to layer properly, even with rags. She should have insisted her kids teach theirs to do the same. Her eldest grandchild had died of pneumonia at the age of twelve.

It took only twenty minutes to finish her coffee, during which time no one approached her. The cold stopped at her legs thanks to the comfortable fire of sweet caffeine now burning a hole in her gut. It was time for round two. She pulled a handkerchief from another hidden layer pocket and coughed into it gently, trying to make eye contact with a group of students passing nearby as she began to shakily rise. They glanced her way, a couple of them shooing the others to cross the street. Well that didn’t work. Maybe if she laid it on a little thicker. She began shuffling along the storefronts and office buildings, keeping her hand on something for support the whole time, acting unsteady on her feet. She wished it had been harder to fake. Her son Sean had always said acting was most difficult when you were trying to show the truth. She had only been to one of his college plays, the one where he’d proposed to his wife. The plane crash on the way home from their honeymoon canceled future performances.

Shambling along four unaided blocks convinced her that no one was looking to earn their merit badge by helping an old lady cross the street. All she had earned was a headache from the honking of angry drivers delayed at each intersection and one long creepy stare from a random man passing from behind her. Another tactic was needed. Her stomach grumbled. Lunch was needed too. She could plan over a hot pastrami. It took three tries before she found an establishment willing to allow her entrance, and only because the third store had an outdoor patio. They unlocked it for her when she showed them the cash for the food she would purchase, proving she was not just looking for a place to get warm. Her piping hot sandwich was cold by the fourth bite, but she munched on. If the boy at the cashier stand had let her in without complaint she could have just picked him and called it a day. True, she looked pretty gross, but that was the point. One act of kindness for a fellow human being, regardless of who or what they are. That was all she wanted. Even if forced or fake, putting forth the effort to be polite and decent was all she wanted out of someone. These things seemed so much easier in the movies. That thought stung at the back of the throat. She’d lost her youngest son’s entire family to a fire thanks to a movie theater’s attempt to stop people from sneaking in by locking the emergency exits.

Stomach full, she decided her next tactic would be hoping someone would help her carry groceries. If this didn’t work, she’d call it a day and try again tomorrow. People might be nicer on a Wednesday. Hoping to avoid a repeat of the restaurant experience, she took the bus to Wal-Mart. She received a few glances and a Loss Prevention tail, but at least they didn’t turn her away. She walked slowly through the aisles, packing her cart with miscellaneous foods and canned goods. When she figured she had enough for a few heavy bags, she went through the checkout line and began her trudge towards the exit. People walked quickly past, darting around her to get back to their cars with their own purchases. She made a big show of struggling to get the bags out of the cart and then shuffling unevenly towards the parking lot. The bus stop was on the far end, so someone would hopefully see her plight.

She left the bags sitting on the ground by the bin as she boarded the bus, too tired to care. Her fingers raked at the tangled muddy mess of hair as she watched street signs and cars flash by from her empty corner of public transportation. The first thing she was going to do when she got home was take a long hot shower. Well, maybe a short warm bath. The last thing she needed was to overheat and crack her skull on the tile as she fell unconscious. She wondered which would be worse, drowning as her daughter had or having everything end in a crash of sudden skull thumped blackness like her daughter’s son. Lord, but I am morbid today. She exited the bus and was mildly surprised to see the Loss Prevention man from Wal-Mart getting off behind her with the bags she’d left behind. She blinked and he walked up to her, holding them up with an odd grin on his face. “You forgot these at the bus stop. Would you like me to carry them for you on your way home?” She blinked again, mouth dropping open slightly as she realized what was going on. She nodded dumbly and pointed back towards the alley she had started from.

“P…please. Just over this way.” She turned and led the way back, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief. She hadn’t wanted to go through a second day of this. She honestly hadn’t thought finding a charitable act would have been that hard. With all the pay it forward stuff she heard about, she thought it would have been easy, but it had taken all day before someone had finally offered to help her. She had already given up, leaving the things behind. The gentleman followed along as they turned down the mouth of the alley. Her car was parked in a lot on the other side. She had all the paperwork in order and sitting on the front seat, just waiting for the lucky helper. If he hadn’t followed me onto the bus… wait, she paused. If he was just making sure I didn’t forget my groceries or offering to help me with them, why didn’t he do so at the store or at the stop? She heard the cans clanking in the bags just before they struck at her from both sides.

***

Alan nearly dropped the book he’d been reading as a loud clattering of falling cans and splashing echoed in the alley behind him. He fumbled a moment, catching it before the slush puddle at his feet could ruin it. He turned back, poking his head around the corner. A larger man bent near a lump of rags on the ground, grocery bags torn open on the ground. Alan moved in to help him pick up his belongings. He could lend him one of the ones he kept in a pocket as a spare dog bag. It always sucked when those weak plastic bags tore open.

“I knew you weren’t no beggar, lady.” The man said suddenly, holding up a large blue clutch wallet. “Ain’t no person dressed like you can afford all the stuff you bought today. Who you think you were kidding?”

It took a moment for Alan to process what he heard. The lump of rags on the ground redefined itself as prone woman in several raggedy coats. Blood blended with the grime in her hairline and down her temple. The book hit the snow as he started running. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing!” The man turned and saw Alan before launching to his feet down towards the other end of the alley, wallet in hand. Alan ran past the limp form after him, then stopped and turned back. He tried to recite details of the man’s appearance as he knelt by the woman to check for breath. She needed to be the priority. Air brushed softly against his fingertips as he held them beneath her nose. She was alive.

“Ma’am? Ma’am, can you are hear me?” He asked, careful not to shake her. He didn’t know anything about medicine and if she was breathing then she probably had time for proper help to arrive. The bleeding didn’t appear to be getting any worse at least. “Ma’am, if you are conscious, please don’t move. You’ve been hurt, but I can’t tell how bad. I’m going to call for an ambulance, okay?”

***

Evalise woke up in a private hospital room, her clean curly white hair blocking the view of fresh cut flowers scattered around her. She tried to lift her arm to brush them out of the way, but found it too heavy. The attempt to puff them out of the way only led to a large coughing fit and annoying beeping from nearby monitors. A nurse appeared with a cup of water and the right button sequence to end the noisy attack on Eva’s eardrums. “Please remain still Mrs. Goldenbaum, you were mugged. You have a broken arm and a skull fracture.” The nurse explained as she held the water for Eva to drink as the coughing fit subsided.

Broken arm? She turned her head slowly, noticing the large cast. No wonder the damn thing felt so heavy. “How am I not dead?”

“Someone saw what happened and called for an ambulance. Luckily, one was on patrol nearby so you arrived quickly. The doctor said the way your hair had been matted might have softened the blow. That and you have amazing bone strength for a woman your age.”

“Lovely. The one thing that isn’t going wrong with my system,” Eva muttered. She felt a little dazed, but otherwise fine. “How long did you keep me under?”

“Five days, ma’am. Today is Monday. I’ll fetch your doctor to explain everything if you are ready.”

“Five days… I’d rather you fetch me that back. I don’t have many left to waste. I need to… wait. You said someone called an ambulance for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Please tell me that someone got that person’s name.”

***
Alan Hendolt sat in the lawyer’s office, listening to the man read out the will of the woman Alan had saved six months before. The hospital had called once to tell him that the woman he had brought to the hospital was expected to recover. He was glad and thought that would be the end of that. Instead, the woman had named him as her primary beneficiary. The lawyer explained that the woman had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and having no living next of kin had decided, against the lawyer’s recommendation, to give her sizable estate to the first person to perform a kind act for an old homeless woman. Her attempt had backfired until Alan’s intervention. She had gotten his name from the hospital and arranged all the paperwork shortly afterward.

Alan was about to ask if he could refuse, but the lawyer handed him a small stationary envelope with his name on it.

“Dear Mr. Hendolt,

My children and grandchildren left this world before me. I didn’t want my world to be taken by some corporation or faceless charity when I died, so I spent most of the day hoping for any small kind act from someone. Someone to open the door for me, buy me a cup of coffee, give me directions… anything. One small kind act that I hoped to return a million fold. Instead I was ignored, insulted and even mugged.

However, you saved my life. Even though there was not much to save, that is still the greatest act of kindness I can think of. Please, let me return the favor by giving you what is left of that life’s work. Donate it, spend it, whatever you wish. I only ask that you accept my kindness and continue to share yours.

– Evalise Goldenbaum”

Alan sat for a moment and then nodded. “Mr. Lichten, will you help me figure out how to start a charity foundation?”

Kita Haliwell developed an addiction to the written word at an early age, spending most of her free time buried in books. Epic Fantasy is her biggest weakness, though she writes primarily Young Adult Fantasy and Mystery (when she isn't distracted by something shiny or Disney).

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