Little Blue Ball
By: Jodi Perkins

THE GUM BALL MACHINE laid there, shattered, its splintered glass spilling across the greasy linoleum in what used to be Patty's Beauty Salon. Jane crouched down, gingerly picking through the dirty glass. After a few minutes, she almost laughed out loud when she realized what she was doing.

Idiot. You're searching for a gum ball.

There obviously wasn't going to be any. And even if there was, what good would one little gum ball do to sooth the hunger that burned in her stomach?

But still, seeing the mangled machine alighted something inside of her. Something primordial and childish and wonderful that she hadn't felt in years.

She remembered as a little girl, she used to spin the crank of every gum ball machine she and her mother walked passed. That was in a different universe. That was in a world where people shopped, and got haircuts, and went to the dentist...a world where gum ball machines stood tall and bright, full of unimaginable treasures. Jane still remembered the way the bright pops of color would beckon to her from behind the glass. Her mother never put any coins into the machine, but still Jane would spin the crank. She would lift the metal flap and peer anxiously inside of the opening, hoping to find a little colorful orb nestled within. Her mother tried to explain to her that no matter how many times she spun the crank, she would never get a freebie. It didn't work that way. Life didn't work that way. She loved Jane desperately—Jane understood this now—and it must have hurt her to see her little girl hope for something that would never be realized. It must have hurt her to see Jane let down over and over again. Especially since her mother knew.

Maybe if Jane had known about Alice as a small child, she wouldn't have fostered so much hope for that gum ball. But it—she—had just been discovered. Parents hadn't started having those conversations with their kids yet. No one had figured out a way to tell their preschoolers that they had expiration dates; that they would never live past the age of 25. Perhaps it was for the benefit of the children; perhaps it was because humanity was in a state of numb perplexity; either way, for those first two years, the grown–ups carried on the ruse of normalcy. The world kept plugging on.

And Jane kept trying for that gum ball.

But like everything else on this planet, Jane's faith also had an expiration date. She was six–and–a–half years old when her mother finally told her about Alice. She was six–and–a half years old the day she listened, wide–eyed, as her mother explained that humans, like dinosaurs, were going to be an extinct species. She listened as her mother told her she would never be a veterinarian, or a writer, or a mother, or a bride.

Her mom never said it in those words. With damp red eyes and arms wrapped tightly around Jane's shoulders, her mother had tried to break the news to her gently. She tried to tell her that there was still many years left, and maybe humanity would come up with a way to save itself. Or maybe the math was wrong. Maybe Alice would miss planet Earth completely.

But it didn't matter. Jane heard the truth seeping through her mother's forced optimism. She knew she would never have a life beyond her mid–twenties.

That was the day Jane learned that belief was for wide–eyed five year–olds. Faith was nothing more than a whimsical notion. Survival was real.

Yet now, even with these thoughts swarming her like a drove of pissed–off hornets, Jane continued to pick through the glassy carnage. The sun, now nearing the western horizon, shone through the grimy window, smearing muddled splotches of dirty sunlight across the floor of the shop. Something sparkled, catching Jane's eye. She moved to the left, then sighed when she realized it was just the chrome crank of the machine protruding into the light. The machine was lying on its side, no stand in sight, its previously proud gleaming globe in ruins. Much like planet Earth, it was nothing more but a crippled remnant of its former beauty. She propped it up, examining it a little closer.

Was it really possible that she had lived in an era where these things were whole?—where kids could actually partake in such pointlessly sweet little pleasures?

Without even knowing she was doing it, she turned the crank. Her breath caught in her throat. She heard the soft clanking sound of a small object clattering its way down the interior of the machine.

No. It can't be. There were no gum balls anymore. This machine was broken. Shattered. Finished. Expired.

But when she lifted the flap, there it was.

A blue gum ball.

A small tear carved a trail down her dirty cheek. The gum ball must have been trapped inside of the machine for years. No one would think to spin a crusty crank buried in grime–caked glass. Not in these times. And yet it had been here, waiting. Waiting for someone to give it one last try....

"I finally got one Mom," Jane whispered, tucking the little blue ball into her pocket.

Turning, she hurried out of the shop. §


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