Mom’s face was filled with concern as she stared at our nearly empty bathroom closet. She sighed and turned to me.
“Vision, it’s almost gone.”
Fear thumped loudly in my ears as I processed the sheer weight of her words. I shook my head in disbelief.
“Mom, it can’t be…not now…not so soon.”
Mom nodded. She dabbed her eyes with the back of her sleeve and took a deep breath. “We’ve just gotta be brave. We’ll get through this….” Despair flooded her face, “…I hope.”
I gulped and forced a smile as I said three words that I didn’t believe at all. “We’ll be okay…”
That night I shuffled my small portion of ground beef and thawed-out frozen peas around my plate. We had long since run out of flour and much of the other good food. I glanced at the anxious faces of my nine siblings and determination took hold of my heart.
“Guys, I have a plan.”
Eleven faces started blankly at me. I stood up on my chair and cleared my throat dramatically.
“As you know, we are nearly out of…” I swallowed my emotion and tried to continue, “We’re nearly out of toilet paper. We only have one roll left.”
Moans escaped the lips of my anguished siblings. Mom glanced at Dad with eyes brimming with tears. Dad hugged her and blinked rapidly. Sampson, my youngest sibling who was often referred to as Tiny Bro, looked up at me.
“Vision, what are we going to do?” His voice was shaky and his lip trembled. He repeated his question in a low, plaintive tone. “Oh whatever will we do?”
Heads nodded in agreement and everyone was reaching for the cloth napkins to dry their running eyes. (All the precious paper products like paper towels and napkins had long since been used up).
“Guys, listen!” I cried, “I have a plan to save us from this Toilet Paper Famine before it’s too late!”
Heads turned, bulging eyes stared at me and gasps filled the air. For a second, I saw hope flicker in the eyes of Tiny Bro. I smiled. If I could accomplish my mission, I would forever be known as a hero. I could envision newspaper articles being written about me. Headlines, in dark, bold lettering would scream, Heroine Saves Nine Siblings from TP Famine. I could hear the applause, the cheering and my fans chanting my name. Vision, Vision, Vision!
“Vision?!” Tiny Bro’s voice broke through my daydreams.
I cleaned my throat again and put on my best superhero face. “Tomorrow, I’m going to start my plan.” A broad smile played on my lips. “Guys, get ready. Everything is about to change for us.”
My breath came rapidly and my hand trembled slightly as I rang the doorbell of my next door neighbor’s house. Questions and worry buzzed around my head like bees in a hive. I was determined, however, that I wouldn’t let my family down. They were counting on me. Failure was not an option. It was succeed or die….or maybe run out of toilet paper completely and be forced to use newspapers like the old people did in the ancient days.
The door opened a crack and the creased, wrinkled face of my elderly neighbor peeked out. She saw me and immediately slammed the door shut again. I heard her say, in a muffled voice, “Go away! I’m allowing anyone in right now!”
I met with the same response from the next five houses I visited. Deep, grey clouds gathered overhead and thunder began to growl softly.
“Perfect.” I muttered, as I quickly rode my bike to the last house on my block. Discouraged, sad and feeling like I would never be a hero, I knocked sullenly and waited for yet another rejection.
I was face to face with a cute, little girl who was holding a very squished looking rabbit.
“Hello,” I was relieved that the door had stayed open five seconds longer than the other houses, “I’m wondering if you could help me out.”
No response, just big black eyes staring up at me.
A tiny tear jumped down my cheek. I tried to remember the speech that I had written the night before. “I’m trying to save my family. We desperately need toilet paper. We’re almost out and,” more tears, “I was just wondering if maybe you could be so generous as to help someone in need.”
Long eyelashes blinked at me.
“Uh….do you have any toilet paper that you could spare?”
The little girl shook her head slowly and closed the door. The clouds, mirroring my heart, broke open and threw a torrent of rain towards the miserable people below.
“Maybe my strategy is just wrong.” I said to my bike, as we both were pelted by ice cold raindrops. “As nice as my neighbors are, these are desperate times and no one will want to risk giving away any of their precious supply. I’ve just gotta go to the one place that may have some.”
I rode into the shopping area of our small town and hurried to the biggest grocery store. I had to wait in line for fifteen minutes before I could even go inside. I was soaking wet and shivering, but confident that my quest would end here.
I ran to the paper goods aisle and stopped dead in my tracks at the scene that met my eyes. Desolate, empty shelves. People with pining, longing faces. Other desperate teens crying and wiping their eyes on the backs of their sleeves.
I’m too late! Desperation washed over my heart like a tidal wave. No! Say it isn’t so! Please!
A loud clap of thunder startled me. The lights in the whole store went dead for a moment before starting back up. Cradling my breaking heart, I slowly walked back into the rain.
I won’t give up now. I tried to cheer myself to keep going. But the fans applauding and the cheering had become distant, lost somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.
I’m so tired. I just want to go home…
The anguished face of Tiny Bro drifted before my eyes. How could I face him empty handed? How could I tell him that his big sister, the one he had always looked up to and admired, had failed?
I set my jaw and clenched my fists. I’m not backing down yet. Water dripped off the end of my nose. I’ll save you, Tiny Bro. Don’t you worry. Vision to the rescue!
I visited every single store in our tiny town. Each time, I was met by empty shelves and felt the sting of desperation and despair spear my heart again and again. After the last store was confirmed to have no Soft Gold, I sat down on the curb and watched as the ice cold water dumped down on my head and streamed down my long hair.
I was out of options and out of hope. I was defeated. Beaten. A failed knight. An anti-hero. A kid who wasn’t able to save her family during the Toilet Paper Famine. I could almost hear the violins playing a mournful dirge. I could imagine how people hundreds of years in the future would talk about Vision Johnson. They would remember what a shame I had been to my beloved Papa and Mama. My name would become a form of insult – people would use it when talking about someone who was miserably incompetent.
I sighed. I’ll just go home and fall at Mom’s feet and beg for forgiveness. The image of Tiny Bro floated through my mind again. Instead of inspiring me like before, I just started sobbing.
As I was plodding along, walking beside my bike, I heard a voice ring out across the desolate and deserted town.
“Toilet paper for sale! Get your toilet paper now!”
I turned and my eyes widened in surprise, hope and glee. The sun broke through the clouds and threw its golden rays down upon a tiny card table standing four hundred feet away from me. A young woman, with long, fair locks looked my way. Even though half of her face was hidden beneath a blue mask, I could tell that she was smiling. Her gloved hands motioned to me. My eyes bulged when I saw the prize sitting on the table in front of her. One, beautiful roll of toilet paper. I’m pretty sure I saw it sparkle in the light. My mouth went dry as I rushed over.
“Please, can I – I mean, I need –” I’d never stammered that greatly. My hands shook so much that I could hardly pull the money out of my pocket. The woman smiled and nodded, as she handed me my treasure. My heart soared as I hugged it tight. Little Bro wouldn’t be disappointed!
The crowds crept out of the dark recesses of my brain and started cheering again. I was walking on a cloud of joy as I made my way towards my house. That’s probably why I didn’t see the massive stick that lay in the middle of the one and only dark alleyway in my town (and, of course, the one I had to go to in order to reach home). I tripped and everything went in slow motion. I watched in horror as my toilet paper flew one way, I went the other and my bike crashed between us. I felt a searing pain as my shoulder hit the cold pavement. Black mud splashed into my face. I sat up and rubbed my aching limbs.
I was so busy trying to get the mud out of my nose that I didn’t notice a dark silhouette, clinging to the shadows and creeping closer to me, my bike and my prize. It was only when I heard a triumphant cheer that I looked up and saw, in utter terror, that a skinny, freckled kid with wild orange hair had my roll of toilet paper!
I shouted my fiercest battle cry, “HEY, STOP RIGHT THERE”, and jumped up and raced after the boy who was already sprinting away. The clouds gathered overhead again, blotting out the sun, and my hope.
My breath came in short, desperate gasps and my lungs begged for oxygen. My legs ached as I forced them to keep up with my new, mortal enemy. Tiny Bro’s pleading eyes strengthened my failing limbs. I ran with renewed vigor.
The thief was fast – much faster than me. He dodged the mud puddles that I seemed to be magnetically drawn into. He skimmed lightly over the roads, whereas I tripped and scraped my knees numerous times. I ran, and panted. I tried to scream my battle cry again, but I was too winded and it sounded like a pitiful moan.
The shadow, the thief, my foe, slipped around a corner. For a moment, he was lost to my eyes. I rounded the corner and ran right into him. The blow knocked us both to our feet and sent the toilet paper flying. When we sat up, we saw it sitting, undamaged, right between us. We both jumped up and scrambled towards it. At the same moment, both of our hands closed around it. We were in a tug-of-war, fighting for something worth more than silver.
“Give it to me!” I shouted. “It’s mine! I paid for it!”
“I need it!” Freckled Thief cried, tugging harder. I heard a sickening ripping noise as the strain on the roll grew. Apparently he heard it, too. We both stopped pulling, but neither of us let go.
“Why do you need it?” Freckles sneered.
I growled. “I have nine siblings and we only have one roll left at home!”
“I have twelve siblings, my parents and an elderly grandmother! We’ve been out of toilet paper for five days! I need it more than you do.”
“Prove it.” I countered.
Careful to keep one tight hand on the treasure, Freckles reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled photo of fifteen people that looked too much like him not to be family.
His eyes filled with warm tears as he said softly, “I’ve looked everywhere else. I tried asking people all over town. No one will help me.” Grief overcame him and he fell to his knees. He let go of the toilet paper roll and hugged his picture to his chest. “I just wanted to be able to go home and bring them some relief…maybe my dad would even…even be proud of me.”
A tear splashed down his cheek and, for the first time, I saw a sad, broken boy instead of a dirty thief. My conscience whispered in my ear, telling me that the right thing would be to let Freckles have my hard-earned prize. At the same moment, I realized that he was too overwhelmed with grief and wasn’t paying attention to the toilet paper anymore. My heart raced and adrenaline surged through my veins.
I could grab it and run home!
My hand closed around the Soft Gold. Just as I was preparing to make a break for it, a deep, sorrowful sob broke from Freckles’s chest. I sighed.
“Hey…” I bit my lip and gave my toilet paper one last loving glance. “I…I want you to have this. Take it for your family.”
Freckles looked up, his eyes wide with astonishment. He reached out and slowly hugged the roll to his chest. “Really?”
As I walked towards my home, empty handed, I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel like a failure. In fact, I felt light and happy. Victorious. Someone who had helped save another human during the TP Famine. A brave dragon-slaying knight. Maybe even….a hero. A band played in my ears as I hurried home, smiling and joyous.
I opened my front door and gasped. Balloons danced, streamers glittered in the light of the bulbs, and a big banner, in bold letters, screamed, VISION J., HERO, TOILET PAPER GETTER, THE GREATEST JOHNSON YET!
My heart sunk.
My siblings and parents swarmed around me, hugging me, laughing and apparently not noticing the emptiness of my hands. Finally, everyone quieted down and Tiny Bro looked up at me with those big, brown eyes.
“Where is it, Vision?”
My throat tightened. Salty tears wet my cheeks. Sobs broke from the deepest places of my heart. And everyone knew the truth. I’d failed.
Tears filled their eyes, too. Everyone broke down. They were all hugging each other sadly, while I stood off, alone, like a black sheep. Someone untouchable. A failed failure. The crowds didn’t just go back into the shadows of my mind, they just turned to dust and floated away on the cruel wind of Catastrophe.
I crawled into bed and pulled my warm blanket up to my chin. Cold tears continued to reject my authority and course down my face. My hair and pillowcase were soon very wet. I cried until sleep gave me relief from my shame.
A tiny hand was pounding on my back. I forced my unwilling eyelids open and saw Tiny Bro.
I pulled the blanket tighter around me and mumbled, “Aren’t you going to ignore me?”
Tiny Bro blinked. “Ignore you? Why?”
“I wasn’t able to save you. You should view me as an outcast.” I was too tired to cry anymore.
Tiny Bro smiled. “I wasn’t planning on ignoring you….and I don’t think anyone else was either. We’re sad about the toilet paper, but Mommy says that you’re worth more than a thousand rolls!”
Tears filled my eyes. So much for being too exhausted to cry. These were different tears. They were happy and filled with thankfulness. I hugged Tiny Bro tight.
“Mommy wanted me to wake you up. She says that you got two packages! They were just sitting on the porch.”
“Me?” Packages were always a source of great pride to me. I rarely got them, which made them all the more special. I rushed downstairs and saw two packages sitting on the dining room table. One was small and the other was rather large. I grabbed the small one first, and tore it open. My siblings gathered around, watching eagerly.
“What is it?”
A wide smile spread over my face as I saw what was inside. There was a big bag of flour, a small carton of eggs, and three sticks of butter. There was also a tiny, orange envelope. I opened it and pulled out an even tinier neon-orange note.
“To the girl with the muddy footprints: thanks for the TP. My siblings are calling you their hero.”
I hugged the note to my chest and whispered, “I’m not a hero. I’m just an average girl, trying to do what’s right.”
“What’s in the other box?!” Tiny Bro was hoping up and down next to me.
I glanced at the top of the box and saw that the return address was from my out of state grandparents. I tore it open and gasped. I felt faint and suddenly the world began spinning around me.
“Can it be?” Tiny Bro whispered in an awed tone.
My throat was too dry to respond. I nodded and slowly, carefully pulled out not one, not two, but ten rolls of beautiful, soft toilet paper. There was a tiny slip of paper at the bottom of the box.
“Thought you could use this more than us. Enjoy!”
“WE’RE SAVED!” My siblings cheered and danced around the room. I was squished in a million hugs. Mom put on the best dance music and we sang the day away.
No crowds cheered my name, no one ever wrote an article about me, and I was certainly less than famous. But somehow, the bright eyes of my siblings and the joy I felt in my heart was much better.