The train jerked forward and I collapsed in my seat, fumbling the zipper on my jacket to make sure I still had it. The envelope. I squeezed my hands around the stack of bills inside, just to feel it was real. I wiped sweat from my forehead, shrugged out of my jacket, tucking the crisp white envelope under my leg. The only way to know it was real was to touch it, keep it close to my body. The train rocked the brick of money into my sore, tired leg.
I opened my little black notebook to a fresh page. The power lines flew past the window to the beat of my heart, one, two, three…The city seeped out, like the people who built it let their concrete bleed until it reached a boggy mess of wasteland. The pewter blur of forgotten buildings faded into a cotton candy pink horizon.
The shock of the blank page snapped me back to my paranoia. What’s etched in ink is permanent. What if someone’s watching me even now? I’ve had this feeling for so long and now I knew it was true. Why else would someone leave me such a gift? I flipped back to my very first written page, running my fingers down the permanent, smudgy ink.
“A terrible day with mother. Just like every other, but today she insisted on going to the store with me, despite complaining about her back all morning. I followed her up and down every aisle. She walked well, lifting her cane to tap what she wanted, refusing to say a word to me like I was hired help. Then I saw, Ricky. His face was rounder but he still had a freckles all across his cheeks. When he waved at me I swear I saw his face as a freshman staring back at me, asking if I wanted to join French Club. I lifted my hand just a little to wave, and just as I did mother fell to the floor, writhing in pain. Ricky started towards me but I turned away while a store manager helped me hoist mother up. I didn’t look back. My face felt so hot. In the car, mother threw a fit about something else, of course, but I watched Ricky through my swollen eyes, loading his trunk, laughing into his cell phone and I knew it was because there wasn’t supposed to be anyone else in the world for me but her.”
Oh god. Was it really that bad? Did I need to be this dramatic? Running away with $20,000 while mother wakes up alone in a dark house with no one there. My phone buzzed in my pocket. No. If I look, I’ll cave. I can’t go back to that house I can’t. Not with the opaque, orange bottles, still dusty with the residue of pills. More bottles than I could count. The blare of the TV. Always on full blast while I washed dishes, cooked, took a shower, slept restlessly. The TV was always on and yet my ears were trained to perceive the slightest cry from mother so I could run to her side.
She got sick when I was eleven. My dad fussed over her at first. He only spoke to me in command form. Fluff those pillows, wash those sheets. If she was up in the night banging around, doing god knows what, dad only asked why I didn’t get up to stop her? I taught myself to hear every sound she made. Every whimper, snore, sigh. I knew what they all meant. It was a language only I could understand. Dad never learned it, so only I knew what she needed. I had seven years of fluency when I finally found out the truth.
She ran out of pills that month, even though I only served her two after dinner. The doctor didn’t understand the severity of her pain. Doctors are real bastards, always waving away your complaints with their foot out the door in less than five minutes. We’d been to so many clinics and specialists and no one could relieve her pain.
The night before I took the SATs mother woke up every hour screaming of a searing hot knife slicing into her spine. The next morning I stared at the bubbles I was supposed to fill in. A question I could barely read. The bubbles floated up off the page and moved whenever I tried to fill one in. I stood up on shaky legs, handed the test to the proctor while the rest of the kids sat behind me popping the bubbles with their knife-sharp number-two pencils. I could hear the discordant scratching of pencil on paper as I walked out the door.
Later I sat on a lonely swing in the park. My beat up shoes worked smooth grooves in the sand below. I dug up a dark, wet patch of mud. Then I kicked sand over it and buried it, buried it.
I drove my mother to the clinic with her face in her hands. Shrieking. Shrieking that she shouldn’t have to wait! Why did I take that stupid test? I wasn’t going to college anyway, “You’re lazy!” she sobbed. We sat in a blue waiting room. I stared at a poster of skin lesions while my mother took quick, shallow breaths beside me and clenched the chair.
In the exam room, a young doctor studied the empty prescription bottle and looked back down at my mother’s chart. I studied her clear skin and dark silky hair that fell to her shoulders. What had she gotten on her SATs, I wonder? She looked so young, like she could go to my school. The doctor finally spoke.
“There’s an in-patient rehab center I’m referring you to.” She looked at my dirty shoes, then my face and asked, “Can you take her there now?” She turned to her computer and started typing away.
“Mother was in pain last night. She couldn’t sleep. Aren’t you going to refill her medication?” The doctor swiveled back around to me, pity spreading over her face. Who the hell did she think she was?
“Your mother has been on heavy doses of opioids even though it’s unclear if she has any kind of medical condition. The best thing for her is to go to detox and then we can do a complete medical analysis from there to determine what - if any - issue might underly this pain.” I looked to my mother. Her face was stony. She stared straight ahead, like if she didn’t look at either of us we wouldn’t see her. “She’s… not sick?” I asked. The doctor shook her head.
“She’s an addict.” She handed me a referral with a scribbled address.
The train ground to a halt, shaking me from my memory. A man in a gray sweatshirt walked through the train car ahead of mine, looking left to right, searching. We locked eyes through the door and he moved swiftly towards me. I tucked the envelope in the front of my bra, grabbed my jacket and ran down the aisles while commuters shoved past me to the exit. Behind me the man in the gray sweater struggled against the exodus. When we locked eyes, I stepped off the train. I ran past the commuters to the end of the train and re-boarded there.
I crouched down in my new seat and watched the man in the gray sweater chasing me stop in the middle of the platform. His eyes found mine again. Then he was gone. The doors closed and the wheels screeched forward.
I had been running from some dreaded thing that was finally catching up with me. Even though I never made a move as bold as this. My stomach clenched at the memory of what I had done to mother that day. I drove past the rehab center to another cold clinic while an old man doctor asked no questions and wrote another prescription. My heart pounded a slow but hard beat. I’d imagine the police coming to my door and taking me away in handcuffs. I started ditching school. I’d sneak away to a coffee shop around the corner. When school let out I found some excuse to keep some hours there.
Today was the same as any. I left mother asleep in front of the TV after cleaning up a shattered glass of orange juice she had hurled at me. I grabbed my black notebook and tiptoed out the door.
I ordered a water and opened my notebook. I sketch sometimes, but mostly I write fantasies about getting out of here. And when I can’t help it, the misery of being here. And a list of wishes: I wish to feel my feet in warm sand. I’ve never seen the ocean actually, only in movies. It’s stupid, but I imagine standing there, spreading my arms out, leaning my head back and laughing like people do on TV. I don’t know what I’d laugh about. But I’d like to drink in the sea with my whole body. I left my notebook on the table and went to the bathroom. When I stepped out I saw Ricky standing behind the door. A wide smile broke his freckled face in half. I tried to squeeze past but he wrapped me in a big hug. What was he so happy about? Maybe he hadn’t been laughing at me that day after all. Maybe he was just a nice someone who would stretch out his arms and laugh for nothing.
I escaped back to my table after a shy “hello.” There was something bulging under the black cover of the little notebook. Had I… done something wrong? I opened it to find a white envelope inside. I held it up to the window. I could see money in there, though I didn’t know how much. I looked around the now empty cafe. I peaked inside the envelope. It was a thick pile of $100 bills. On the page where the envelope was tucked someone had written in blocky letters, “RUN.” I stuffed the envelope into the notebook and zipped it in my jacket. I pushed the glass door open to the atonal sounds of traffic and sirens and found myself running like a bullet with some unknown target.
When I got to the train station I stopped to catch my breath. Was this some kind of a joke? Have I stolen this from someone else, unknowingly? I jumped on the first outbound train, barricaded myself in the nearest bathroom, and examined the crisp bills under fluorescent lights. I counted, then recounted. A sound escaped my mouth that sounded like it came from somewhere else.
I rocked in my seat at the back of the train and dozed clutching the envelope, no longer wondering if I’d be caught. For now I was wrapped in a cloud of daydreams.
But my notebook. Where was it? I swept through my jacket. I must have left it at my first seat. It had my name in it. Someone would find it eventually and track me. Maybe someone was watching me long before I found the money? I stood up in the empty train car and made my way towards my last seat. I would get my notebook back and on the next page right after ‘RUN’ I would write, “Yes and now my life is a dream.”