The coupon read “You may redeem this coupon for __________________________.” Alice looked around to see who may have dropped the coupon, but the sidewalk was empty. She thought it funny that there was no store name on the coupon. And who leaves a fill in the blank space on a coupon? That was a unique gimmick to be sure. If she knew which store it went to, she would check it out. Maybe even fill in that blank. She shrugged her shoulders and pushed the coupon into her pocket.
The night was chilly, and the parking lot deserted. She shouldn’t have stayed so late after work using the computer for personal tasks. She checked over her shoulder that the security guard was still in sight. Not that he’d be much use in a dangerous situation. The overhead light glinted off his head, not his gun. She smiled and waved. Hal was an OK guy, just not Captain America.
She took a deep breath as she climbed into her car, locked the doors, and get the heater blowing. She sat for a moment, rubbing her hands, waiting for the frigid air blasting out of the vents to turn lukewarm. As soon as she could see out the windshield, she pulled out of the lot and headed home.
The stress of the week followed her on the drive. Some wine and lasagne at Vincent’s Italian Bistro might help her leave it behind. A sickening thump broke her reverie. She jammed on the brakes, her heart performing acrobatic leaps in her chest. What had she hit? She hadn’t seen anything, but if she was honest, she couldn’t even remember getting to this block. ”Too much daydreaming, Alice,” she muttered as she slid out of the car.
As she rounded the front of her car, she realized that she hadn’t hit a cat. A small child lay in front of her front bumper on the passenger side. Alice stifled a scream and ran to the child.
“She’s not breathing,” she announced to the night. No pulse either. Damn. She saw the blood seeping out to create a halo around the child’s head. It grew bigger and bigger. Alice held her breath in horror. A sob lodged in her chest. She collapsed onto the pavement next to the child.
“This is a sticky mess,” a deep male voice said behind her.
“I know…. uh, where did you come from?” Alice lifted her head to see a youngish man in jeans and a leather jacket. He leaned against the street sign that read Cabrera and Pine.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I’m here now. Anything I can do to help?”
Alice scrambled into standing. “No, I’m afraid she’s dead. My phone’s in the car. I’ll call for help.”
“You could just leave. That’s what most people in this God-forsaken neighborhood would do.”
“We need to find her parents. They must be so worried.” Alice realized with a start how difficult it would be for them to learn the child was dead, not lost. She cried, keeping her back to the young man as she reached into the car to find her phone. Silly, she thought. Worrying about him seeing her cry when he’d already seen her commit vehicular manslaughter.
Then he was behind her, reaching around her, squeezing against her. She screamed, until she saw that he had pulled the ticket out of her pocket. He backed away, hands up.
“It’s a lucky thing you found this coupon today. I’d say even a blessed thing,” he said.
Her mind raced. How had he known the coupon was in her pocket? What difference could it make to a dead child? How could it change her life, now ruined by a moment of inattention?
“I’ll bet you’ve never seen one of these. Most people haven’t and never will. These coupons are, well, they’re special.”
“It doesn’t even say what store they are from. And what kind of coupon lets you fill in the blank for anything you choose?”
“This kind of coupon lets you do that. And it’s not from a store.”
“Then how does it work?”
“Fill in the blank and it will be clear.” He held it out to her and she took it.
“I should be calling the police instead of talking to you about this thing.”
“She’ll be just as dead either way, right? Fill in the coupon.”
Alice sat in the car and pulled a pen out of her purse. She thought for what seemed like hours before she finally wrote ‘redemption’ on the line.
Blinking, she saw the overhead light glinting off Hal’s head. How had she gotten back here? She lifted her hand to wave, then hurried through the lot to the front of her car.
No damage to the bumper. How?
Alice climbed in the car and drove until she reached Cabrera and Pine. Slowing, she looked around. There was no child in sight, no blood on the pavement, no young man leaning against the street sign.
She crossed herself and began to drive. She passed Vincent’s and pulled in to the church next door instead. As she hurried up the steps, a young man came out, holding a young girl in his arms. They rushed past her, laughing and talking about stopping for burgers on the way home.