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Turning the Tables

Making a Difference

By Denise Brandell MastrocolaPublished 3 years ago 8 min read

Life was harsh during the pandemic, and people like me, well, we were nameless faces behind a mask; used out of necessity, and then pushed aside and forgotten.

Sure, I had a job. I was a student working part time at the local pizza place making nine dollars an hour. I was what they called an essential worker, so I was kept on. Sounds good, right? Well, while my friends were being furloughed from their jobs and collecting unemployment benefits which were three times as much as their actual pay checks would have been, I was barely scraping by.

I’m still trying to work out the fairness in that.

Was I bitter? Well, yeah, a little; who wouldn’t be? I mean, I’d even lowered myself to scrounging in parking lots and the laundromat for loose coins so I could buy bread and a jar of peanut butter a few weeks earlier because I knew I didn’t have enough money to buy food and pay my electric bill. I could be worse off, and I try to remember that when my friends are spending their pandemic checks on stuff they don’t really need, but it's tough.

I’m not totally ungrateful. I pass homeless people all the time as they hang out near the doors of the shopping center where I work, so I've seen how the other half lives. My one room studio apartment is small, but at least I have a place to stay which is more than some people can say.

Still, I did find five dollars once, and it felt like I'd won the lottery, even though it was just a fluke. I was walking past the convenience store, looking for stray coins, when I saw it wedged between the wall of the store and the trash cans where the employees hung out to smoke. Edges fluttering, it fought to break free from it's prison, and without hesitation, I snatched it up. No one was around, and with no way to find the owner I figured it was mine. After a brief mental debate with myself about saving it for something important, I stopped into the small coffee shop on the corner and ordered a large hot chocolate. Nothing had ever tasted so good. It was an indulgence I hadn’t allowed myself for a long time.

I’m not an outgoing person, and I made my way to a corner booth at the back of the cafe to enjoy my spoils. It was a great place to people watch without attracting unwanted attention, and that was where I found it.

Apparently forgotten by an earlier guest, a small pocket sized journal had been jammed down into the dark crevice between the wall and the seat. I would have completely missed it if a sharp corner hadn’t jabbed my thigh as I sifted my weight. Pulling it out, I casually examined it. Basic black, and good quality, I wondered who it belonged to. Slipping off the elastic closure I opened it to the front page, and sure enough a name and address had been inscribed in fancy script.

It read, Jenna E. Smith with an address which I recognized as one significantly higher-end than my own.

Well, Miss Jenna, I thought, as I leafed through the book, you've barely used this at all, so I doubt you'll miss it. I felt a small pang of conscience as I pocketed the book, but reasoned that she could afford to buy another one, while I couldn't. I'd been wanting a journal to keep my records in, and here it was, dropped out of the heavens for my personal benefit.

Draining the last bit of chocolate from the bottom of the cup I stepped out into the cold and headed for home. I had several hours of reading to do for my psych class and it was already getting late.

It was cold in my apartment, not much warmer than it was outside. After last month’s electric bill, however, I'd begun setting the thermostat on my heater back to 50 degrees when I wasn’t home because I simply couldn’t face another month of scrounging for pennies just so I could eat. I moved the dial to 65. The ticking sound indicated that it was slowly warming up.

Twenty minutes later, wrapped in a blanket, I huddled in an old recliner with a hot mug of noodle soup. My psych book was straddled across my knees and I was trying to absorb the dull subject before me, but my mind kept wandering to the little black book in my coat pocket. After an hour, with little progress, I cast the textbook aside and pulled out the journal. I had decided to rip out the dozen or so used pages so I could make it my own, but her words on the opening page caught my attention.

“It’s been a really hard year,” it began. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand it.”

Really, I thought, what could little Miss Rich Kid have to put up with that was so difficult? But my interest had been piqued so I read on.

“I haven’t seen any of my friends in so long,” she continued. “the online classes are boring, and I almost never get to leave the house anymore.”

Well, I could relate to part of that at least. Since the pandemic had begun my classes had been on line as well, and since gathering, or going to anyone else’s home, was being restricted I'd become even more of a loner than I already was.

Sorry kid, I thought, not much anyone can do about it, so you’ll just have to make the best of it like everyone else. Skimming through it I discovered that she had made a few friends online, but only one of them had acted like they really cared. Some guy named Eric Brown, who lived in another state a hundred or more miles away. Reading her thoughts about him, it seemed like they had a lot in common. Too bad they couldn’t have found each other in a different time and place, I thought.

“Well, you can’t have everything,” I sighed. Putting it on the table beside me I picked up my psych book once more. An hour later I didn’t feel that I had gotten much out of my reading and was ready to call it a night, but like a moth, drawn to a light in the dark, I went back to that little black book. Picking up where I had left off I continued reading. I felt a little bit guilty, after all this was like reading her diary without permission, but curiosity kept pulling me back.

“I can’t believe we’re actually going to meet,” it read.

Wait a minute! My attention was instantly focused, rereading the passage. How could they meet when he lived so far away, I wondered?

I hadn’t really thought about how old the writer in the book was or what the age of her correspondent might have been, but now that I was reading it more carefully the words and sentence structure did seem as though they could have been written by an older teenager. Probably this Eric had a car, but still—that was a long way to drive to meet up, and during a pandemic when they shouldn’t be meeting up at all.

Getting into bed, my last thoughts were that this girl was going to get herself into some real trouble with her parents or local authorities if she didn’t watch out.

Throughout the next day my thoughts kept drifting back to that girl and her clandestine plans. I kept telling myself it was none of my business, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was doing something that was going to go bad if anyone found out about it.

I knew where her address was, perhaps I should take the book there and let her parents know so they could intervene, but I hated to get her into trouble. The truth was I’d begun to sympathize with this girl; I knew how it felt to be alone.

The time and location for their meeting had been disclosed in the book; it was only a day away. Should I show up, hope that Jenna got there before Eric, and try to talk her out of it? I was so conflicted, I couldn't concentrate through my classes, or my shift at work that night.

The following day, pushing my concerns aside, I walked to the park where Jenna’s journal entry had said they would be meeting. It was cold, but I got there early and took a seat on a bench behind a shrub where I could see anyone who came or went without being easily observed. Thirty minutes later a man and his dog wandered in and sat down on a bench at the edge of the parking lot. Two minutes after his arrival a car pulled in and a young woman got out. So far, so good, no one who could have been Eric.

As I stood to approach her so did the man with his dog, so I held back. Walking toward the parked cars he stopped the girl and spoke to her. Even though I was fairly close, it was difficult to hear their conversation due to both of them wearing the required masks, but he seemed to be asking her the time.

I waited, and he lingered. Suddenly he grabbed her keys with one hand while pinning her arm behind her with his other. Her automatic resistance was useless as he shoved her toward her car, and without thinking I sprang into action. I’m not terribly big, but I am athletic and with an adrenalin rush I sprinted forward, jumping on his back. Crying out in surprise he tried to shake me loose, but instinctively I held on with everything I had, screaming for all I was worth, and hoping against hope that someone else would hear us in this out of the way place.

Seconds felt like forever as I heard the girl scream, and the man swear. He was strong for a man of his age, but I refused to let go. I felt myself being shoved repeatedly against the rough bark of a tree as he attempted to break my hold. I knew I was losing this fight. A blow to my head, followed by a wave of nausea, caused me to release my grip as he succeeded in hurtling me to the ground. Writhing in pain I rolled over attempting to sit up when a blur of running feet passed me and everything went black.

The next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers. Well, maybe not all of them were strangers. I recognized the girl from the park, who I assumed was Jenna, and she introduced a man and a woman as her parents.

She explained that she had been fooled into thinking that her online friend was a high school boy in another state when it was really a man who lived in the next county. He had gotten friendly with her in an attempt to lure her to the park where he planned to abduct her.

Fortunately, two young men from the local college track team had been jogging nearby when they heard our screams. Arriving seconds after her assailant had thrown me to ground they took him down as he was once again trying to force Jenna into her car.

Jenna’s parents were so grateful they gave me $20,000 as a reward and had the state’s three major newspapers interview me and Jenna for a story they would be writing to warn other kids and teenagers about the dangers of making unseen friends on the internet.

fiction

About the Creator

Denise Brandell Mastrocola

I am a writer and editor. I have certifications in Family, Marriage, and Human Relations and like to write both fiction and non-ficiton books and short stories.

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    Denise Brandell MastrocolaWritten by Denise Brandell Mastrocola

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