Authors: S.T. Hill
Published by S.T. Hill
Copyright 2013 S.T. Hill
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I jumped back just in time to avoid the bumper of the steel grey BMW.
"Ass..." I said, watching the expensive sports coupe race through the red light so quickly that the license plate shrunk to illegibility in moments.
More carefully this time, I walked across the street. It was a four-
laner, two in each direction. It was almost nine in the AM, and the drivers were anxious to get to work.
Why did mom need this stuff right now? I wondered as I mounted the curb on the other side.
The street smelled like a garage, with a tinge of ozone. A bit of rain would be nice, to wash everything away.
The only pharmacy in our network within walking distance was almost eight blocks away.
Eight city blocks, the broad sidewalks bustling the entire way.
I would take the bus, but my pass expired two weeks ago. So here I was
, beating my feet against the sun baked Pasadena sidewalk this fine Monday morning.
As usual, the sky overhead was blue, not yet tinged by the smog drifting over from LA. 90% sun year-round in So-Cal. Very nice, if not for the constant need to reapply sunscreen.
"'scuse me, young lady, you got any change?"
I stopped, immediately regretting it. But my mind was so hung up on mom's prescription that I hadn't even noticed the homeless man leaned against the wall of an adult bookstore. A red neon sign forced into the shape of an overly buxom woman presided over the scene.
"What?" I said. Why did he have to beg right by this place? My eyes kept skipping around, trying to find some place to land that wouldn't show me rippling abs or heaving bosoms.
They finally settled on the hobo. He wore a
scrabbly black beard flecked with grey over a torn camo-pattern combat shirt. His left leg ended in a stump, thankfully covered with a fold in his combat pants.
"Change, got any?"
I wanted to say no and just walk away. But I couldn't. I'd feel his eyes on me.
So I reached into my shorts pocket, grabbed a few coins, and dropped them into his lap.
"Thank you!" he said as I scurried away.
I looked down at my watch. It was a cheap digital thing, some of the numbers already fading.
It felt like I should be in school. My heart quickened, and nervous fingers tickled my spine. This time last year I was in AP American History with Mr.
Jackson. He never liked tardiness.
But I had been finished school for a year. And I could see the pharmacy up ahead.
Electric chimes sounded when I pushed open the door. I closed my eyes for a moment as the air conditioning breathed down on me. The sweat on my forehead dried, and an involuntary shiver ran through me.
The fluorescent light made my hair, pulled back in a hasty ponytail that morning, look the color of straw. Looking down at my hands, I thought it might be a good idea to let up on the sunscreen a bit. My skin was so pale I could see the network of blue veins
running beneath it.
I made the usual trip up through the Cold/Flu aisle. I didn't have the prescription on me, but the pharmacist knew who I was and what I needed.
"Good morning, Stephanie," said Mr. Pravan. He was Indian, with a horseshoe of grey hair around his nut-colored scalp.
"Morning," I said, looking back over my shoulder.
Between all the aisles, I could see out through the plate-glass windows at the front of the store. Traffic was letting up slightly as rush hour began winding down. I might be able to make it home without being run over.
There was also a Coke machine beside the door. I hadn't had any soda in a month. My mouth watered as I thought about grabbing a cool, red can. I knew it would begin sweating as soon as I got outside, coating the can in little droplets.
But I couldn't spare the change.
"Your mother called ahead. Her prescription is already prepared. That will be $53.05, please.
Again, I shoved my hand into the front right pocket of my shorts. I pulled out a wad of ones, fives, and a ten and put them on the plastic-covered counter.
My breath caught as I watched him begin counting. I shoved my hand back into my pocket, digging.
Pravan reached the same conclusion as me about a second later.
"Miss Stephanie, you're two dollars and five cents short."
I pushed my fingers deeper into my pocket, hoping that I really hadn't given that hobo all my change. But all my fingertips found were a few balls of lint that fell out onto the floor as I turned the pocket inside out removing my hand.
I drummed my fingers on the counter, looking at the array of
crumpled and torn bills I'd already presented him.
"Can I give you the extra next time?" I asked.
Mom needed those pills. My heart seemed to close up as I thought about facing her without them. She wouldn't yell; she never yelled. She'd just run her fingers through what was left of her hair, give me a gentle smile, tell me it was all okay, and then go suffer silently in her bedroom.
Pravan's thick eyebrows knitted together. The chime rang behind me as someone else came into the store. I could hear their footsteps coming up the Cold/Flu aisle towards us.
"Miss Stephanie..." he said.
"Please?" I said, trying to whisper, trying to keep my eyes from darting over my shoulder to see who was there.
The little white bag with th
e pills was right there in front of me where he put it. I could grab it, I knew. There were enough little white pills shaped like discs in there to keep mom relatively pain free for the next month.
"The balance will be applied to your account," Mr.
Pravan said, scooping the bills off the counter and sorting them into the register.
"Thank you, thank you..." I said, grabbing the little white bag, relishing the feel of the paper crumpling under my grip.
"Yes. Thank you for your business. Have a nice day. May I help you, sir?" Mr. Pravan said, pointedly looking over me at the person waiting in line.
I'd have to squeeze in an extra shift at the diner somehow to make up the money, but that was for future me to worry about.
All the way back home, I gripped the bag tightly. The paper was damp with my sweat when I slid the key into the lock to the apartment I shared with my mother.
As soon as I went in, I could smell it.
The sickness. It hung in the air, lingering no matter how long I left windows open or fans on.
I put my keys in the little tray, a cracked porcelain soap dish with a faded floral pattern, on the table. I kicked my shoes off and went down the entry hall, through the kitchen, t
o the master bedroom.
I found myself missing the kiss of the air conditioner from the pharmacy, and my stomach deeply regretted my brief flirtation with the soda machine.
I'd heat up some Ramen in the microwave when mom had taken her pills.
Mom needed it because it also had its own small
ensuite washroom. The cloying smell of her illness thickened, and I had to remind myself that it wasn't actually the cancer causing it. No, it was an experimental new drug. Taken partially for its supposedly increased odds of killing the cancer cells, partially because the cost was covered by the pharmaceutical company performing the trials.
I said, knocking on her bedroom door. It was a cheap, flimsy thing. Hollow, so that my rapping knuckles sounded like they were beating a drum.
I gave her another few moments,
then went inside. She was on the bed, as usual. The comforter and sheets were pulled up past her waist, despite the heat. I knew if I touched her hand, her fingers would feel like icicles.
The small black and white TV on the stand in front of the bed was muted, some soap playing on the screen.
The ivory drapes in front of the open window fluttered in the breeze, which did little more than stir around that cloying aroma. Her closet was open, revealing all the sun dresses she loved so much.
She hadn't been able to wear any of them for months, choosing instead the sweater and sweatpants she wore at the moment.
But her smile was still warm despite her bloodless lips. We had the same shape of face, I knew. Mom had been so pretty before all this, before the cancer started eating her from the inside out. But now the few wisps of grey hair (it had been blonde like mine last year, and thick) served only to make her high cheekbones more severe, to make her eye sockets like deep caverns.
Steph. Did Mr. Pravan get my message?"
"Yeah," I said, sitting down in the white plastic lawn chair beside her bed. The dresser against the far wall held its own small pharmacy worth of pills. Thankfully, the pharmaceutical company and the insurance covered a lot of it. What they didn't nearly bankrupted us, however.
Taking out the caramel-colored bottle from the bag, I handed it to her. She smiled at me.
I hated the cancer. It had already taken my mother from me, leaving a withered husk behind. If I pulled her covers down, I know I'd see the long, thin sticks that used to be her legs. Her fingers were little more than skeletal claws, which tried to pop the cover off the bottle with little success.
"Here," I said, taking it from her. I twisted the cap and pushed it off with my thumb. I took out one of the little white discs and offered it to her.
"Get the pill cutter," she said, motioning at the dresser.
"Mom..." I said, waving the pill at her. I grabbed the glass of water, half-full, from the nightstand and held that out as well.
She grabbed my wrist. I had to keep myself from flinching at her touch. How could a person feel so cold? The guilt from feeling that way was far worse, though. What kind of daughter was I, who feared being touched by her own mother?
"Steph, we've discussed this. Cutting them in half will save too much money to ignore..."
"But the pain..." I said.
Sometimes, when she thought I couldn't see or hear, she would cry and moan. I knew I couldn't come to comfort her when that happened. She would just wipe the tears away, force that smile back onto her face, and say nothing was wrong.
"I like the pain. It lets me know I'm still alive. Now, go cut it in half."
Putting down the glass of water, I went over to the dresser and sectioned the pill. What next? Would she ask for it in quarters? I wouldn't let her do that. I'd find some way to squeeze in extra shifts. If I woke a few hours earlier, I knew I could do it.
I watched her take the pill half. Her eyes had always been a deep blue, and they remained one of the only things I really still recognized of the mother I'd known for my nineteen years of life. They seemed to smile at me, too.
"Did you hear anything about those applications?" she asked.
I'd almost pushed those from my mind. They were one reason we were so strapped for cash this month. She'd made me mail out college applications to half a dozen schools.
I couldn't believe how much some of those places charged just for the privilege of sending them a few pieces of paper that they'd look at.
Anyway, I wasn't really holding my breath. My SATs were pretty good (1600) but I'd been out of school for a year now, and had no extra
curriculars to speak of at the moment. Besides, schools preferred students fresh off the high school assembly line.
Some of my friends back in school had taken the shotgun approach, applying to dozens of places across the country. Even they'd only received a couple acceptances, and even then at their safety schools.
"Don't know. I haven't checked the mail yet," I said.
Not that I'd forgotten. Bills came in the mail. There was probably a second electric cutoff notice in there. I told mom that would happen if I wasted all that money applying to places I wouldn't get into, but she'd insisted. I'd thought of just lying and saying I'd applied, but I knew she'd want to see the rejections as proof.
"You need to go to school," she said, shifting her icy hand over one of mine. My skin prickled with goosebumps, and I forced my arm to stay in place.
It was an argument we'd had dozens of times since I graduated. She hadn't even finished high school herself, and there was a fiery determination within her that I, her only child, go. Sometimes, I thought she hated her disease even more than I did, simply because it kept m
e anchored in Pasadena.
"Mom..." I said, hoping my warning tone was enough.
"No! You listen to me, young lady. You need to go. Your whole life is on hold. How are you going to become the person you're meant to be without leaving home?"
"You know I can't go, mom. Your disability checks barely cover the rent."
She smiled, her dark eyes sparkling, as she squeezed my hand.
"Just go check the mail. I have a good feeling today. Please?"
I rolled my eyes at her in the way I knew she liked. This argument was so old hat it was basically a parody of itself, with the two of us just a couple of actors going through some well worn lines.