American Opioid Podcast Season 2 Script

Jamal Khan
Jul 19 · 51 min read

Episode 1

Welcome to Season 2 of the American Opioid podcast. If you’re new to the podcast, you’ll want to start with Season One. This podcast is intended to educate the public about the opioid crisis and bring attention to the American Opioid Project, a crowdsourced encyclopedia of the opioid crisis that will help the public understand how it was experienced in all 50 states from a variety of perspectives. Share your story today by visiting www.americanopioid.org.

We now begin with the first episode of the second season of American Opioid. A five-year-old girl named Jane Merrick, who we met briefly at the beginning of Season 1, is about to be picked up from day care by her parents, just like on any other day. But unlike any other day, they are not going home. Instead, they are venturing deep into the inner sanctum of the opioid crisis.

(Chime)

Jane could tell that something was different when her parents picked her up one day from City Day Nursery. Her mother was fidgety, tapping her nails on the armrest and sighing frequently. Her father was a bit more controlled, but she could tell he was not in a good mood, and she refrained from speaking with him. They pulled up in front of a house that she had never seen before, and her father got out.

“Be right back,” he said. He headed to the house, leaving them inside the car. Jane’s mother was taking deep, shallow breaths. It was eerie. Jane tried to calm herself by thinking back to her time that day with Matt. She was only a year older than him, but in kid years, that was a lot. She enjoyed a size advantage over most of the other kids in their quadrant of the sprawling day care facility. A boy had tried to come over and play with the crayons, but she would have none of it. She pushed him away and pinched his arm, making him cry. She then walked back to Matt, her duty extinguished. Matt continued his coloring, with an audience of one. It had been a good day, until now.

Jane’s mother turned her head to her left ninety degrees, as if she was going to speak to someone in the empty driver’s seat. “How was your day, Jane?” she drawled.

“Good. Where are we? I’m hungry,” Jane replied.

“That’s nice, dear,” her mother replied in a flat voice. She did not turn all the way around to look at Jane. Instead, she looked to the right, stared at the front door of the house. No further words.

Finally, Jane’s father stepped out of the house and came back to the car. When he got in, he handed her mother a brown paper bag and then started the engine. She eagerly rifled through it, like a child handed a stuffed stocking on Christmas morning.

“Jesus Christ,” her father said. “Not in front of Jane. At least wait until we get home.”

“Just drive. Jane can’t see,” her mother replied. They did that sometimes. Assume she could not understand what they were talking about.

Jane was seated in the middle of the backseat, as usual. Her mother repositioned herself in her seat so that Jane could not see what she took out of the bag. As they pulled onto the freeway, Jane heard her mother exhale loudly after a sharp intake of breath. Her father looked over to her mother. It was difficult for Jane to understand the expression on her father’s face. As he drove, he kept glancing at her mother, then to something in her mother’s lap.

“Ah, screw it,” Jane’s father finally said. He pulled over onto the shoulder of the freeway and turned off the engine. Positioning himself so that his back was to Jane, he rummaged through the bag. Jane could hear the whoosh of cars going by at high speed. They were so fast and close that Jane could feel the car rock slightly each time. She was too scared to speak.

Jane heard her father exhale slowly. “Lord, that’s good,” he whispered. His previous caution about what his daughter saw seemed to melt away, and he set a pencil-like object down in the narrow space between his seat and her mother’s. Jane saw the needle. A minute later, she heard her father snoring.

“Daddy? Mommy?” she croaked, trying not to cry. They did not respond. The vehicle continued to shake from the passing cars. She felt herself become unmoored, like she was floating away from the situation. Her mind began to drift, and she imagined herself at daycare again, where things were clear and predictable. She did not know how much time had passed before the stranger tapped on the glass.

She shrank back from him, but he grinned reassuringly and removed his hat, revealing neatly combed hair. She took in the rest of him: the dark blue uniform, the sparkly badge reading RAGLE CITY POLICE DEPT. She rolled down the window a little bit.

“Hello, little girl,” he said. “Are you all right? Are they your Mommy and Daddy?” He gestured to her parents in the front seats. She nodded. “Looks like they’re taking a nap, huh?” She nodded again. “Can you open the window some more? Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you.” She did as he asked.

He reached in and unlocked her mother’s door. Then he opened it, took a good long look inside, shook his head, and closed it gently. Another man walked up, dressed the same way. The first man conferred briefly with the second, who stepped to the side and spoke into a radio.

The first man looked at Jane, pressed his lips into a thin line, shook his head again slowly. The grin had become a grimace. The man hesitated for a bit, then reached into his pocket and took out a phone. He walked backward several steps into clumps of grass, away from the vehicle on its passenger side, and held the phone out in front of him horizontally, screen facing him. He tapped the screen with his finger several times.

Jane’s memory of what happened afterward was a blur. She remembered being back home in her room, and her parents having a loud argument in their bedroom. She felt oddly relieved. Verbal fireworks were preferable to the suffocating silence that would have left her with an even worse sense of foreboding.

The next morning, her parents took her with them to an office building, and left her to wait in the lobby while they spoke with someone in an office. Another day that involved a great deal of waiting. She hated it, the feeling of not knowing what would happen next. The receptionist smiled at her, then walked over and gave her a Juicy Fruit, saying, “Here ya go, sweetie.” She liked the receptionist.

When her parents came out, both looked stressed, though less than before. They took her home, and did not speak to her anymore of the matter. When she asked them what happened, they shushed her and said everything was fine. Life at home continued as usual.

But outside home, something had changed. Over the following week, Jane could feel it when she was at school and in daycare. A creeping realization entered her consciousness, an awareness that a number of grownups were staring at her: teachers, lunch ladies, caregivers. The sudden attention made her uncomfortable. What had happened?

At one point, Jane excused herself to go to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. She was the same as before, no change in her appearance. Her clothes were rumpled and unkempt, her hair twisted and knotted up, but that was how she usually looked.

After the lunch period ended later that week, she was standing in line with the others to go back to the classroom. The lunch lady, who she noticed had been watching her with a keen eye, was speaking with her teacher, Mrs. Appleby, who then turned her head to look directly at Jane. She quickly looked away. Was she in trouble?

At the end of the school day, Mrs. Appleby walked over to Jane after she dismissed the class.

“Just a minute, Jane,” she said. She waited for the last students to trickle out, then sat down in the seat beside Jane, who unconsciously leaned away. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble,” Mrs. Appleby said. “I just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.”

Jane looked down at her desk. “Fine,” she mumbled.

“How do you like the tablet?” Mrs. Appleby asked.

“It’s good.”

“You know, it’s amazing. When I was your age, most people didn’t have a computer. There wasn’t even an Internet. No cell phones either.” She laughed. “Now, even kindergarteners like you have tablets, and access to all kinds of resources we couldn’t have imagined. And to you, it’s just normal. I hope you realize how lucky you are, to get it all for free.”

Jane nodded.

Mrs. Appleby paused, then chose her next words carefully. “There is something else that I wanted to ask about, something that I think could help you. How was lunch today?”

“Good,” Jane responded.

Mrs. Appleby nodded, then said what she was going to say anyway. “On the first day of school, I passed out a form to everyone, and told everyone to give it to their parents. Here is another copy of it.” She put a paper in front of Jane. It had a lot of words and blank boxes. “Do you remember this?”

“Yes.”

“Did you give it to your parents?”

“Yes.”

“What did they say?”

“I don’t remember.”

Mrs. Appleby smiled and handed her the paper. Jane took it home.

The next morning, Jane showed up with the form. She gave it to Mrs. Appleby, who frowned after seeing the empty lines, the blank boxes. “Did you give it to your parents?” Mrs. Appleby asked.

“Yes,” Jane replied.

“What did they say?”

“They said it’s not for us. They said we don’t need it.”

Later that day, Jane was called into the principal’s office. She knew him because he always made remarks at the podium at the beginning of assemblies. He was an short Asian man with wire-rimmed glasses and a grey suit jacket. He smiled broadly at her from behind his massive gray desk, while she slouched in a chair that was too big, her feet dangling several inches above the floor.

“How are you, Jane?” he asked.

“Good.”

He spoke for what seemed like a long time. The school wanted its entire student body to do well, to succeed. That included Jane. She had lots of help available to her. All she had to do was ask. If anything troubling was happening in her life, inside or outside of school, they had a counselor she could talk to anytime she wanted. “We are here to serve you,” he finished with a flourish.

She had no idea why all this was happening, but she kind of liked the attention. It made her feel special. None of the other kindergarteners had been called into the principal’s office like this. She wished it would happen again in the future. When she got back to the classroom, she held her head high.

That evening, while she was watching Wheel of Fortune with her parents, there was a knock on the door. Her father got up, peered through the eyehole.

“It’s a woman,” he said. He opened the door.

“Hello, Mr. Merrick,” a familiar voice said. “My name is Martha Appleby. I am Jane’s kindergarten teacher.”

“Oh, I see,” Jane’s father said, sounding puzzled. “Uh, please come in. Everything okay? Did Jane do something?”

“No, nothing to worry about,” Mrs. Appleby responded. “Just a separate issue I wanted to briefly discuss with you.”

Jane smiled and waved at Mrs. Appleby as she came in, but her teacher seemed distracted. Next thing Jane knew, her parents were seated with Mrs. Appleby at the dining table while she stayed in the living room. The TV was still on, and her mother had increased the volume before heading to the other room, but she could make out what they were saying.

“Your daughter would benefit greatly from this program. So many other students do.”

“We don’t need this. We can take care of our daughter just fine, thank you. We don’t want the government involved in anything else having to do with Jane. We don’t trust them at all, after they posted that horrible picture on social media –”

“But didn’t they replace it with a picture where her face is blurred?”

“Yes, but everyone we know saw the original picture. All my siblings. Cousins were calling, asking if it was really me, if it was really Jane in the backseat. They say it went viral, that people across the entire country, the entire world, saw it. Can you imagine how humiliating that is?”

Silence. Then Mrs. Appleby’s voice saying, “I’m sorry for what you’ve had to go through. They should have replaced it with the blurred version much sooner.”

Jane heard what sounded like sobbing. “We were too scared to complain. At the station, they kept threatening to press charges and take Jane away from us unless my husband and I agreed to rehab and bunch of other stuff over the next year. They said they didn’t want to break up another family, especially since we had no criminal record. I guess it was more than fair, given what they caught us doing. Me and my husband, we were let off the hook. We were grateful. But they insisted on posting that picture on social media to make an example of us, to shame us. They only replaced it with the blurred version because of some new law that makes it illegal to post a picture of a minor without permission. Otherwise, it would still be up there today, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

“I understand that you don’t want your family to be humiliated again. Privacy is very important. Perhaps they were influenced by the images coming out of Ohio and Florida and so many other states and wanted to prove that it was happening here too. But regardless, what’s done is done. This program would allow her to have free lunch at school, and no one else would know. She would not be distinguishable from any other student. That’s how it must be, to comply with the law.”

“She eats lunch already.”

“Yes, but under this program, she would have a well-balanced meal, unlike what she has now. I know what she’s eating, because the lunch lady told me: Twinkies, fruit roll-up, a bag of Doritos, soda. She needs something more solid, more nutritious, and I think you know that. This program can give her what she needs. You just have to fill out and sign this form. That’s it.”

Silence. Then her mother, who sounded weary, said, “It’s been hard these days to afford –”

Her father cut in. “Look, we appreciate you coming to our home to give us this form, we really do. We know you didn’t have to do that. We’ll go ahead and fill it out for that reason alone. We’ve already been humiliated anyway, and it can’t get much worse. I want my baby girl to be healthy.”

“Fantastic. Here’s another form for you, with more information. As you can see, your daughter will be able to participate in other nutrition programs as well, like the School Breakfast Program. Then there’s one for the summer, when school is out, and another one for eligible children in day care facilities. Also, lots of schools, including ours, waive field trip fees for kids who are certified for free or reduced-price meals.”

The following week, Jane began to receive a hot lunch in the cafeteria, served on a Styrofoam tray. In the beginning, she missed what she had wolfed down before, especially the Twinkie, but she got used to the new food. For the first time, she felt full after lunch. It was nice.

But on the very first day that Jane started having free lunch, someone else underwent a transition that was not as pleasant. Across the turnpike, amidst the fancy neighborhoods of High Falls, in the spacious living room of a neocolonial, naloxone was sprayed up the nostrils of a woman named Marjorie Kane, summoning her back to the world of the living.

(Chime)

In the next episode, Marjorie resorts to increasingly desperate measures to access opioids, placing herself and her son in jeopardy. Join us next time on the American Opioid podcast.

Episode 2

Welcome to Episode 2 of the second season of American Opioid. If you just started listening, you’ll want to start at the beginning. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.

At the end of Season 1, Marjorie Kane overdosed in the home of her employers, an affluent family in a posh neighborhood in High Falls. Let’s find out what happens next.

(Chime)

When Marjorie opened her eyes, two paramedics stood over her. She was still in the living room, but she now lay on the floor. Turning her head to the side, Marjorie saw her employer, Sheryl, on the couch, alongside her husband, Alex.

Marjorie had seen Alex only once before. He left early in the morning at dawn, before she arrived, and came back late at night, long after she left. Working for Expanding Possibilities, the technology behemoth, was a dream job in Ragle but she could see the downsides. Very little time for Arthur.

Speaking of Arthur . . . Marjorie looked around. Agatha and Arthur were nowhere to be seen.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” one of the paramedics asked, holding up three.

“Three,” Marjorie replied.

“Good,” the paramedic said. “You had an opioid overdose. What that means is your breathing slows down until you die. Luckily, we were called just in time to give you naloxone.”

“Naloxone?”

“It’s a powerful antidote that jumpstarts your breathing, jolts you back to life. You’re fine now, but if we had arrived just a bit later, things would have been dicey for you. What kind of opioid were you taking –”

Sheryl cut in. “Anything else you’re required to do?” she asked the paramedic.

“Nope, that’s about it,” the paramedic answered, gathering his gear. “Well, we can take her down to the hospital to get her checked out, just to make sure everything is in order.”

Marjorie sat up. “No, I’ll be okay,” she said. She looked down at her lap and saw that her pants had been pulled back up. She felt perky, alert. Sharp. The naloxone had done its job well.

Sheryl clasped her hands together. “Okay, thanks for your help,” she told the paramedics. “Would you like me to see you out?”

“No, that’s fine. We’ll see ourselves out,” the paramedic said. They headed for the front door.

Marjorie looked at Sheryl, then at Alex. Both were avoiding eye contact with her. She asked, “What time is it? Where are Arthur and Agatha?”

Alex finally looked her directly in the eye. “It is eleven o’clock in the morning. Agatha is in her bedroom, and Arthur is with her. Agatha called us when she couldn’t tell if you were breathing. Then we eventually called 911.”

“Oh, wow,” Marjorie said. “So, Agatha, and you, saved my life. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Alex said.

Eleven o’clock. “Don’t you guys need to be at work?” Marjorie asked.

“We . . . both took the day off,” Sheryl said. A long, awkward silence.

Marjorie slowly got up. “Okay,” she said. She took a couple of steps toward the hallway, and saw both Alex and Sheryl immediately take steps in unison. They wanted her to leave. “In that case I guess I’ll head home for today.”

“That would be good, yes,” Sheryl said.

Marjorie walked to the front door, hearing their footsteps behind her. When she came out onto the porch, she turned around and said, “So, tomorrow morning –”

“Won’t be necessary,” Alex responded. He took a deep breath. “Marjorie, your services are no longer required. Please do not come here again, and please do not go near our family ever again. Here,” he said, handing her a check. “This covers the pay period all through next week, along with the following pay period. We wish you the best of luck, we really do. But if you come here again, we will have to call the police. Goodbye.” He shut the door.

Marjorie stood there on the porch for a good minute, processing what she had just heard. In a daze, she walked to her car and drove home. Sitting in the living room in her trailer, she glanced at the time. Twelve noon. In less than half a day, she had gotten herself fired from the cushiest job she ever had. But that was not what bothered her the most. What infuriated her was her inability to get back into that house.

Marjorie pulled out a folder, flipped through the pages until she found it. The business card of Tanya, Matt’s sign language teacher. She examined the title. Early Education Specialist. Good, it was vague enough. She spent that afternoon practicing her lines in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to anticipate contingencies. She only had one shot, and she had to deliver, or she would be toast.

The next day, Marjorie waited until one in the afternoon, then drove to the gated community in High Falls. She held her breath at the gate when the attendant saw her, but he smiled and waved her through, as always. Arthur’s parents had not updated him on recent developments, a very good sign. It meant no one was expecting her. She pulled up in the driveway, then took a deep breath.

“Get in and get out, Marge,” she whispered to herself. Get in and get out.

Marjorie walked up to the porch and knocked on the door. A young woman answered it. She looked to be in her early twenties. This was the substitute they found on short notice.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked.

“Yes, I’m from the county. I’m here to check in on Arthur Banks as part of our evaluation process to determine his eligibility for the county’s early education program, as per your request,” Marjorie answered, sounding as authoritative and business-like as possible.

The woman blinked. “I made a request?”

“Yes,” Marjorie said. “Are you his mother, Sheryl Banks?”

“No, I’m the help,” the young woman responded. “His parents are at work. Where did you say you were from? I’ll call Arthur’s mother to check.”

Panic gripped Marjorie. “I left a voicemail this morning to confirm the appointment,” she said, trying to keep her voice level. She handed the woman Tanya’s business card. “This is my card. You can pass it on to Sheryl, so she knows I was here. We’ve had to reschedule a couple of times, and I know she wants it done as soon as possible. Otherwise, she’ll be upset.”

The woman read the business card carefully, then looked Marjorie up and down. The slacks, blouse, clipboard. Marjorie knew she had just the right look. She herself would fall for such an appearance. This girl did not have a chance.

“Sure, come in,” the young woman said. “I’m Linda, by the way. How long will this take?”

“Fifteen to twenty minutes,” Marjorie said. “Nothing elaborate, just a few questions that we’re required by law to ask. Also, I’ll need to take a quick look around the premises.”

They headed into the kitchen, where Arthur was eating lunch. “Hello Arthur,” Linda said. “This nice lady is going to ask you a few questions.”

Arthur looked up at Marjorie, then froze. He turned to Linda. “I saw her private part,” he announced. “Mommy and Daddy said she won’t be here anymore.”

The words landed like a thunderclap. Linda turned to Marjorie, a startled look on her face. In a split second, Marjorie returned it with the grave expression of a jaded soul. “I’ve heard this kind of thing before,” Marjorie whispered. “It means I remind him of someone who’s been here, someone who’s not his mom.”

Linda gaped.

“Yeah, awkward,” Marjorie whispered. She gestured toward Arthur. “This one’s probably the only thing still keeping them together, to be honest,” she whispered, shaking her head in feigned pity. Speaking louder, she said, “Anyway, I’ll inspect upstairs and then come back down here, so he’s had a chance to finish eating.”

She trooped up the stairs, and her heart sank as she heard Linda’s footsteps behind her. Not good. When she reached the top, she headed to the various bedrooms, all of which were unlocked now that she had been identified as the drug thief. Linda stayed with her, watching her like a hawk. This would not do. It was time to change the dynamic.

Marjorie squinted at her clipboard. “I believe there is another resident here, a grandmother named Agatha?” she said.

“Yes, that’s exactly right. She’s taking a nap in her bedroom downstairs,” Linda said. Agatha always took a nap at this exact time each day. That was why Marjorie had timed her visit accordingly.

Marjorie had asked about Agatha to give Linda one more piece of reassurance that she was here legitimately. Now, having bolstered her own credibility, it was time to put Linda on the defensive and send her packing.

Marjorie glanced down at her clipboard again, made a note on it with a pen. Then swiveled her head slowly toward Linda. “Is it normal in this household for the child to be left unattended? Like he is now, downstairs?” she asked in as disapproving a voice as she could muster.

Linda put her hand up to her mouth in shock. “Oh, not at all,” she said. “I’ll go check on him now.” She half-sprinted toward the stairs, and Marjorie almost snickered aloud. Then she snapped back into mission mode.

Marjorie hurried to the drawer and opened it. Yes! The plastic bag was there. Inside, packet after packet of Fentanyl patches. As she caressed the packets with her fingers, doting on them lovingly, euphoria arose within her. Glorious, yummy, dizzying euphoria. Despite her not even having applied a patch yet. Weird.

Downstairs, an antique grandfather clock chimed faintly, snapping her out of her reverie. Get it and get out. She stuffed the packets into her front and back pockets, and deposited the remaining handful into her bra. When done, she took a quick glance in the hallway mirror. Everything good. She had distributed the packets evenly, so there were no suspiciously large bulges.

Marjorie merrily traipsed downstairs, only to stop cold at the foot of the stairs. Agatha stood outside the door of her bedroom, hands gripping her walker. She was looking directly at Marjorie.

Marjorie stared back for a moment, then broke the silence. “Tell your husband I said hi,” she said, then turned and started walking toward the front door.

“Hey, where are you going?” Linda called behind her.

“Forgot something in the car,” Marjorie replied. “Be right back.” She had secured what she had come for, and nothing else mattered. She strolled lazily over to her car, taking her time to admire the neo-Gothic architecture of the house for the last time. Got in, backed out of the long driveway carefully. Then floored the gas pedal. As the house receded in her rearview mirror, she saw Linda run out onto the porch, stand there. Then run back inside.

It was very possible that by tonight, the Banks would have fired two household helpers in two days. The first firing was her fault, and the second firing would also be her fault. The thought made Marjorie uneasy, and she shoved it out of her mind. Right now, she just had to worry about her own situation.

As she sat in her trailer that afternoon, Marjorie fretted about what might happen. Would the Banks call the police? She doubted it. That would lead to all kinds of hassles for them, and the fastidious dwellers of High Falls did not like to tolerate the slightest bit of discomfort. Not to mention how the sight of police cars in their driveway one day after a screeching ambulance would come off to their neighbors. No, they simply needed to update the gate attendant that she was no longer welcome, and would never need to worry about her again. But it was impossible to predict what they might do.

That evening, after she had picked up Matt from daycare, there was a knock on the door. Oh shit. Perhaps they had called the police after all, despite the drawbacks. But why so much later in the day? She opened the door, and saw two women dressed in a uniform she did not recognize. Behind them a few feet away stood a police officer.

(Chime)

In the next episode, Marjorie becomes increasingly resourceful, even as setbacks mount. Join us next time on the American Opioid Podcast.

Episode 3

Welcome to Episode 3 of the second season of American Opioid. If you just started listening, you’ll want to start at the beginning. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.

(Chime)

“Hello,” one of the women said. “We’re from Child Protective Services. Based on information we have received, we have reason to believe this household may be unsafe for Matthew Kane. We’ll need to inspect the premises.”

“What are you talking about? What information?” Marjorie asked. “Who’s been talking to you?”

“We are not at liberty to say,” the woman said. “The sooner you comply with the search, the easier this will be for everyone, including your son.”

Shaking her head, Marjorie stepped aside and allowed them to enter. “Ok, whatever.”

The search was thorough. As the police officer waited by the doorway, the women methodically worked their way through the entire trailer. They were obviously searching for something that did not take too much space, something that could be easily hidden. Sheryl must have told them about the Vicodin pills and Fentanyl patches. So, this was her revenge.

Through it all, Matt stayed glued to his book, the first in Sibyl’s third shipment. Marjorie had noticed a major change with this set. The books from the first two boxes had displayed colors on the left-hand page and stick figure drawings on the right. The new books had only colors, no drawings. Also, the blending between the colors was far more intricate, and Marjorie felt overwhelmed just taking it all in. The same appeared true for Matt, who frowned with concentration, oblivious to the three adults who had invaded his home.

“I’m actually kind of enjoying this,” Marjorie said. “I don’t get a lot of visitors.”

“If we find what we’re looking for, your enjoyment will be quite short-lived, we assure you,” one of the women said.

“What are you looking for?” Marjorie asked.

The women did not answer. They continued to rummage through her trailer. In her bedroom, one of them opened the small top drawer of the dresser, saw it. Glanced at Marjorie, eyebrows raised.

“What? You’re gonna tell me that’s illegal?” Marjorie asked. “I’m sure you have one hidden away somewhere, don’t act so innocent.”

Laughter all around. Her remark had lightened the mood.

“What happened?” the policeman at the door asked.

The woman shared a knowing glance with Marjorie, and announced, “Feminine hygiene products. Nothing you’d want to see.”

Stifling giggles, the two women continued to search, but with noticeably less zeal. A short time later, they left. Marjorie stood outside, watching the taillights grow dimmer until they disappeared. Then she took out her phone and called Sheryl.

“How dare you,” Marjorie said. “How dare you try to take my son away from me. You have a son who’s almost the same age!”

“Don’t even start,” Sheryl shot back. “You dared to come into my house through fraud, and went in front of my son, who’s still traumatized by what happened yesterday. Just to get more drugs. Vicodin, and now Fentanyl. We saved your life when you overdosed on that, remember? And you came back for more? Don’t preach to me, bitch.”

“This isn’t about me, it’s about my son. If anyone takes him away, you will have fucking hell to pay. And your son‘s an idiot. It’s about time someone told you. My son is lightyears ahead of him, and he’s deaf.”

“So they didn’t find drugs all over the place? That’s too bad. Where did you hide them? Your son deserves to be raised by someone who’s not a closeted drug addict –”

Marjorie hung up the phone. Walked inside her trailer, leaving the door unlocked. Slumped onto the couch. That was the first time anyone had called her a drug addict. Is that what I am? She shook her head, went to the closet. Grabbed a scooper. Went out back, to a grassy area behind her trailer.

She had thought about hiding the patches in her car, but worried they might search that too. She retraced her steps from earlier in the day. Five full paces forward, then eight to her left. The light from her phone shone across the freshly dug dirt. This was the spot.

A couple of fat cockroaches scurried away from the light, disappearing into the darkness. She shuddered, then began to dig with the scooper. It would not take long. Two minutes at most. Four minutes later, a gnaw of worry grew in her stomach. After another five minutes, she was frantic, stabbing into the dirt with the scooper. Where did it go? She dug like a madwoman until the hole was four times, five times bigger than the one she had dug earlier in the day.

It was gone. She wanted to scream. Someone must have seen her bury it here, and had come along and taken it in the interim. Oodles of fentanyl patches, gone from her forever. But also, the vials of all the other pills she had amassed. She had put all her eggs in one basket, and now she had nothing. Her lifeline against suffering was gone. She gritted her teeth and walked back to her trailer, leaving the gaping hole behind her.

At her door, she kicked off her dirty shoes and then collapsed on the couch. Heard a sniffling. Looked up and saw Matt, tears running down his cheeks. The book he had been poring over now lay closed. She brought him to the couch, sat him down on her lap.

What’s wrong, sweetie? She signed.

Too hard, he replied. Too hard, too hard.

Yes, life is hard, she answered. Things don’t always go the way you want them to. She herself began to sob. Matt stopped crying, looked up at her, studied her damp eyes. Then resumed crying with renewed vigor. Mother and son both, weeping at the whims of a cruel world.

The next day, Marjorie went to her pill mill, the reliable clinic in the unreliable area. The one that had never failed to give her a prescription. She pulled on the door, but it did not budge. A sign on the door read: OUT ON VACATION. BACK IN TWO WEEKS. When it rained, it poured. Marjorie felt the queasiness inside her, the suffocating fear of impending horror. She needed to think fast.

Marjorie got into her car and drove to the hospital emergency room. She walked in with an odd, slumped posture, clutching her lower back.

“What’s wrong?” asked the desk attendant.

“Spasms,” she moaned. “Muscle spasms in my back, can’t take it.”

They sat her on a bed. Asked her to rate the pain on a scale from one to ten.

“Ten,” Marjorie gasped, then writhed, arching her back and howling. She pointed to the source of the pain when they asked her.

“Yeah, that’s definitely muscle pain,” the doctor said after examining her. “We’ll get you a muscle relaxant.” Marjorie’s eyes narrowed. Just a muscle relaxant? She was about to get up and walk out when the doctor added, “And a dose of morphine to help with the pain.”

Marjorie settled down. All was well. Several hours later, her symptoms miraculously vanished, and she was discharged with a prescription for codeine, just in time to pick up Matt. Everything was lining up properly again.

But even with the codeine pills in her possession, the allure of morphine on demand was too much. She went back again, and then again, trying to time her visits so there were different staffers on shift. She did not want them to remember her, but not having a job left her restless during the day. Her visits were becoming a blur. She knew it was only a matter of time before she killed the goose that laid the golden eggs, but she simply could not stop.

During her next visit, the staff seemed to be taking longer than usual. She looked up from her bed at the passersby in the hallway, wondering why no one was dropping in. They usually arrived much sooner. A nurse arrived, accompanied by two security guards.

The nurse cleared her throat. “According to people here,” he said, “this is the sixth or seventh time you’ve come in with the same vague complaint and aggressive demands for narcotics. We can no longer see you, and you need to leave immediately. If you refuse, you will be escorted out.”

The nurse handed her a flyer. She glanced at it. Listings of rehab centers, methadone clinics. She shook her head. So much for that initiative. As she walked to the parking lot, Marjorie tried to tamp down her misery by looking ahead. The clinic would be open again tomorrow.

When that day arrived, she headed there early in the morning, only to see a line snaking outside the door. The people looked stressed and anxious, eyes darting around warily. Most appeared well-to-do. Marjorie realized they were Pretenders, like her. None of them liked being outside, out in the open. They knew they were there for questionable reasons. They looked exactly how they would have looked if they had lined up in front of the establishment down the street, the one with the large neon sign promising “Girls Girls Girls” in cursive letters. They worried about being seen by a friend, a boss, a neighbor.

On the street corners on either side of the line were drug dealers hawking their wares. Probably heroin. One man in line was so jittery that he succumbed, heading over to one of the dealers and making a purchase. The other dealers guffawed, and one applauded.

“We sellin’ the same shit, just cheaper. That place,” a dealer said, gesturing to the clinic, “our competition. The doctor, he live in a big ass house up in High Falls, and he pay for it with his hustle down here in our neighborhood, making money off y’all. He get kickbacks from the drug companies to get y’all hooked on their shit. Linin’ his pockets.”

“Lambs to the slaughter,” another dealer said. “Funny thing is, the drug companies got other drugs that ain’t addicting. But insurance don’t cover that shit, because the addicting drugs way cheaper for them. Gotta pile them profits. Everybody in on it. Everybody playing the game. They got fancy degrees and private schools and all that shit, but they the same as us. Ruthless motherfuckers. But ain’t none of them in jail. This how America work.”

No one said anything. No one refuted the remarks. Marjorie tried to ignore what she heard. Her primary concern was seeing the doctor and getting that prescription. At last, the clinic opened and the line began to shrink.

During the appointment, Marjorie mentioned that she needed a higher dose than before because the pain was worse.

The doctor smiled. “Having trouble getting other prescriptions filled because of the new law?” he asked.

Marjorie remained silent.

“Tell you what,” the doctor said. “I can prescribe more, but only if you go to this pharmacy.” He jotted down an address for her. “They accept cash only, so make sure you bring enough for the co-payment.”

The place was eighty miles away. Marjorie did not need the address, because she had seen the advertisements for it on her phone. The ads had appeared only recently. When Marjorie arrived at the pharmacy after the long drive, she stood in the parking lot and took it all in. She had never seen a pharmacy like this. The license plates on the cars indicated that people were coming here from five, six different states. A massive line, longer than anything she had seen outside of Arkade, Ragle’s amusement park. Heavily armed security guards patrolled back and forth. As she waited in line, she overheard the people ahead of her talking.

“So, the advertisements just started showing up on my phone. That means they’ve gotten bolder now, operating right out in the open.”

“Don’t you know? They were waiting for the law Congress just passed, the one that makes it harder for the DEA to halt suspiciously large shipments of drugs. Look at the security here. They must be making a fortune.”

“Why would Congress do that?”

“Lobbyists, obviously. A bunch of them worked for the DEA before they went to Big Pharma to make the really big bucks.”

When Marjorie finally got to the counter, she presented her prescription, which they barely glanced at. On a whim, she presented the prescriptions from other doctors, the ones that had previously been rejected elsewhere. No issues. No hassles about a state database. After paying, she clutched the multiple vials of pills and headed home. The whole thing seemed too good to be true.

And it was. When Marjorie arrived the following month, the place had been shut down. Cursing, she drove home nonstop, all eighty miles. Perhaps that was why the ads had stopped appearing on her phone just days before.

That weekend, she headed over to her favorite clinic, only to see that it too had been shuttered. The sign read NO LONGER IN BUSINESS. On her phone, she checked the local news, scrolling until she came across it. Ragle doctor indicted for fraudulent prescriptions, may lose license. She tapped the headline, scanned the story. Raised her eyebrows when she saw that the charges had been brought by the state attorney general, who had indicted several other doctors simultaneously. “The pharmaceutical companies are next,” he trumpeted at a press conference. He was sending a message: the state would aggressively crack down on pill pushers. Of course, there was also the unspoken message: he had begun his campaign for governor, and he hoped this issue would help elect him. Marjorie did not follow politics, but she knew how politicians were.

“Hey lady,” a voice called. Marjorie looked up from her phone at one of the drug dealers, who had come closer. He looked to be about sixteen, with saggy pants, careworn sneakers, and an extra-large t-shirt draped over his medium frame. “Hey lady,” he repeated. “We know you need that product. We got it right here. No need to go nowhere else.”

“What do you have?” Marjorie blurted out.

“The big H. Black tar heroin. Good stuff, it come from the same poppy plant as all them pills,” he replied.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Marjorie said. “I don’t take illegal drugs.” She walked off, heading to her car. Behind her, the dealers exploded in laughter.

“Dayum, that bitch delusional as fuck,” one of them said. “She think she no drug addict.”

“This shit fun to watch,” said another. “She get desperate enough, can’t get them pills, she be back like the rest. Just a matter a time.”

As Marjorie got into her car, the sixteen-year-old yelled out, “That doctor the best thing that happened to us! Shit ton of customers now! From South End, High Falls, everywhere! Come back soon, lady.”

As Marjorie drove home, she tried to contain her feeling of dread. Her safety net had been kicked out from under her yet again. After picking Matt up from day care, she sat in the living room of her trailer with a vial of pills on the coffee table. She had quite a few, but she had no idea how she would replace them. She had noticed that their effect had diminished, and she needed to take more, compounding the problem.

Matt sat on the floor of the living room, staring at the wall. He had started reading Sibyl’s book for a little bit, then had again given up. Now, he seemed as if in a trance. Marjorie wondered what thoughts swirled in that peculiar brain. What made him happy was so different from anything she could relate to, and her inability to connect with him, to share in his joy, made her sad. He was her son, but his lineage extended from a branch of the family tree that had passed her by.

Marjorie wondered what Sheryl’s son, Arthur, was doing right now. Probably mussing up his dinner, then throwing a fit over having ice cream or pie for dessert. Matt, on the other hand, was so quiet and reflective. Never fussed about food. Never threw a tantrum. He could zero in on something and block everything else out for hours at a time. Matt and Arthur were like night and day.

Then Marjorie remembered the incident that had gotten her fired, the look on Arthur’s face when he saw what no toddler should ever have to see. Her smugness vanished, and was replaced by abject shame.

“Fuck,” she said to the trailer. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

“Fag,” Matt said. She had not realized he had turned his attention to her. His eyes were on her lips, reading them. “Fag fag fag.” He paused and smiled, waiting for her to smile back and praise his acumen.

Marjorie stared at him, shocked. Oh god. She was failing with her own son, too. Impulsively, she popped another pill. It was halfway down her gullet before she wondered whether she had already taken one right before that. Too late.

She was about to curse again when she realized Matt was still studying her lips, hungry for feedback. Time to set a good example. “I love you,” she said. After seeing him hesitate, she repeated it for him, speaking slower. “I love you.”

“I wuv you,” he said.

Marjorie laughed. “Awww,” she said.

“Ahhh,” he responded.

Marjorie got up from the couch and sat on the floor with him. She lived in a trailer, but at that moment, she felt like the richest person in Ragle. She scooped Matt up, held him close to her, and rocked back and forth.

“No one will take you away from me,” she murmured. “No one. I’ll protect you forever.”

“I wuv you,” Matt said.

“I love you too, sweetheart,” Marjorie said. Moments like these reminded her what really mattered in life. Euphoria coursed through her. Stress melted away. The rest of the world faded for a brief eternity.

When Marjorie opened her eyes, she blinked hard, confused. She did not remember when she had fallen asleep, sitting and hunched over. She wondered why she was on the floor of the living room, and tried to remember what she had been doing. Then it came back. She had been cradling Matt, who was now –

Matt. He was lying down beside her, his complexion a strange blue hue. In his hand was a vial of pills. The pills that had been on the coffee table. She had forgotten to close the child-proof cap, and he had taken the vial while she was asleep. He had seen her take pills so many times, he must have thought it was okay to do it himself. How many pills did he ingest?

Marjorie pushed her thumb against his throat, trying to feel a pulse.

(Chime)

In the next episode, Marjorie is forced to come to terms with her addiction to opioids. Join us next time on the American Opioid Podcast.

Episode 4

Welcome to the fourth episode of the second season of the American Opioid podcast. If you just started listening, you’ll want to start at the beginning. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.

Marjorie’s son Matt has just overdosed on pills that she left out. Let’s find out what happens next.

(Chime)

Marjorie pushed her thumb against her son’s throat, trying to feel a pulse. She held her other hand just in front of his mouth. She felt the warm breath from his exhalation, so he was still breathing. Thank god. But his pulse was feeble, and his breathing shallow. She shook him, trying to wake him.

“Matt? Matt!” she pleaded. He did not stir. His ghostly pallor made her sick to her stomach. Marjorie dashed outside and banged on the door of Amelia’s trailer.

When Amelia opened the door, words tumbled out of Marjorie. “Matt, he’s sick. He took a lot of pills, I don’t know how many, and he’s sick.”

Amelia’s eyes widened, and she followed Marjorie back to her trailer. “He’s still breathing,” Marjorie said, “but he won’t wake up.”

Amelia knelt and examined Matt, just as Marjorie had done. She looked up at Marjorie. “Not good. We should call 911.”

“No!” Marjorie exclaimed. Upon seeing the quizzical look on Amelia’s face, she hastened to explain. “Child Protective Services was here recently, and if they catch wind of this, they’ll take him away from me. I know they will.”

“I don’t understand,” Amelia said. “Kids get into the medication of parents all the time. It’s very common.”

“No police,” Marjorie said. “Please, no police.”

Amelia saw the distress on Marjorie’s face, and decided not to push it for the time being. “Well, what did he take?” She picked up the vial of pills, studied the writing on it. “This is an opioid, right? I’m pretty sure it is. How many pills did he take?”

“I don’t know,” Marjorie said. “He took them when . . . when I wasn’t looking.”

“Okay, so he needs an anti-overdose drug,” Amelia said.

Marjorie tried to remember the name of the drug she had been given in High Falls, in Sheryl’s house. “Naloxone?” she offered.

“What’s that?” Amelia asked.

“It’s the name of a drug that can treat opioid overdoses.”

“Okay. How did you know it was called that?”

“Ummm . . . I read about it in an article somewhere,” Marjorie said. She tried to change the subject. “Anyway, where do you think we can we get it?”

“Are you kidding me?” Amelia said. “We’re living in a trailer park in South End. Somebody around here is bound to have it.”

They started going door to door and asking for it. After four doors, no dice. Then they approached the trailer where a boy in a wheelchair loitered out front.

“Hi, Bennie,” Marjorie said. “Is your mother home?”

“Yeah, she’s home,” Bennie said, with a pouty face.

A woman with dimpled cheeks opened the door. “Oh hello,” she said. “What brings you here this time of night?”

“Hi Beatrice,” Amelia said. “We were wondering if you had any naloxone.”

Beatrice’s eyes narrowed, and she pressed her lips together, which brought out the dimples even more. “Why? Why do you want to know?”

“Someone had an overdose, and we need it to save his life,” Marjorie said.

“Okay,” Beatrice said slowly. “And who is this person?”

“Why does that matter?” Marjorie exclaimed.

“Because,” Beatrice said, “I don’t trust anybody. What made you come to me and not someone else?”

“We’ve been asking everyone,” Amelia offered, trying to relieve the tension. “We’re just trying to help the person who overdosed, and we would appreciate it if you happened to have the overdose treatment.”

“Yeah, my mom has it,” Bennie called out. “I had to use it on her. And she still tells me I’m useless.”

“Shut up, Bennie,” Beatrice shouted over their shoulders. She turned her attention back to the two women. “Okay, you can have it. But before someone ODs next time, just go down to the drugstore and pick it up.”

“Wait, we don’t need a prescription or anything?” Amelia asked.

“Nope. New state law,” Beatrice said as she wandered to a cupboard, grabbed it, and came back. “Anyone can get it, and anyone can use it, no questions asked. They think it’ll save lives, even if it makes people more careless about overdosing. But God bless them. So many people are moving to heroin now, after the crackdown on easy access to pills. And they’re overdosing everywhere. I saw someone passed out at the dollar store the other day. Just lying there, like a dead body,” Beatrice said.

Marjorie waited in agony as Beatrice pontificated. All she wanted was the naloxone, but she feared that pushing Beatrice would set her off and cause an even longer delay. Beggars could not be choosers. Marjorie’s restless gaze wandered from Beatrice to the inside of her trailer. The setup was not that different from Marjorie’s own. A small couch, coffee table, outdated television. Marjorie’s eyes randomly fell upon a dirty plastic bag tucked into a corner, a bag that looked familiar. Suddenly, Beatrice shoved the priceless object into her hand and shut the door in her face. Seconds later, the two women rushed back to Marjorie’s trailer.

“Yeah, go go go!” Bennie shouted, then whooped. “Save that life!”

Inside Marjorie’s trailer, Amelia squinted at the instructions.

“Hurry!” Marjorie whispered. She was too jittery with nerves to handle the device herself.

“Patience, Marjorie,” Amelia murmured as she read. “Okay, I think we need to spray it up his nose.” She positioned the device under Matt’s nose and depressed the lever. Marjorie heard a hissing sound, and saw tiny, barely visible droplets fly into Matt’s nostrils.

One endless minute, then another. Amelia repositioned the device and depressed the lever again. More droplets. She pressed it a third time, but nothing happened. “I guess we just wait,” she said.

Matt’s eyes snapped open and he bucked up toward Amelia, colliding with her chest and bumping his head against her shoulder. He gulped for air, in and out, almost hyperventilating. They gripped his arms and shoulders to keep him steady. His eyes, glassy and dazed, scared Marjorie. He always looked so focused, even when he was daydreaming.

But he was awake. The unnatural hue had faded from his complexion, and his cheeks and neck were rosy red from his respiratory efforts. He was awake, and he was alive. Marjorie cradled him in her arms and sighed with relief.

“Marjorie,” Amelia said slowly. “I think we need to talk. I’ve been thinking for some time that you need an intervention of sorts.”

“Okay,” Marjorie said. She knew the conversation would not be pleasant, but she did not mind. She had her baby back.

“Marjorie, when did you lose your job?” Amelia asked.

“How did you know?” Marjorie asked.

“It’s obvious,” Amelia answered. “Everybody in the trailer park knows. They gossip about you. People see your car return here after you drop off Matt at daycare. You stay here a lot of the time, and when you do drive off somewhere, there’s no consistency to it. No one with a job could have that flexibility.”

“Oh,” Marjorie said. Nosy neighbors.

“Also, someone saw you at that pill mill, the one in the bad area with all the gangs and drug dealers everywhere. The only people who go to that clinic are addicts.”

“Now, that’s where you’re wrong. I can’t be an addict,” Marjorie said. “No way. Everything I’ve ever gotten has been with a prescription. Signed by a doctor.” Well, except for the Vicodin and the fentanyl patches. But there was no need to bother Amelia with such details.

Amelia laughed. “Really? That’s how you see it? So many heroin addicts in this city started off with prescription painkillers after an accident, to treat the pain. But they kept taking them after the injuries healed. I think that’s what’s happened to you. Your car accident was months ago, and I doubt you still feel any neck pain. So, what are these pills doing here?”

Unable to maintain eye contact with Amelia, Marjorie shifted her gaze to the vial of pills on the floor, which had slipped from Matt’s hand. The vial that had almost killed him. “I was prescribed these by a doctor,” she repeated. “How could doctors knowingly prescribe pills that turn people into drug addicts? It makes no sense. Are you saying we can’t trust doctors?”

Amelia snorted. “I knew something was wrong when I complained to my doctor about my carpal tunnel syndrome from all that typing at work. Next thing I knew, he jotted off a prescription for some really strong stuff. I took one pill and thought, wow, this is too much. So, I treated myself with home remedies, mainly sandwiching my hands and wrists between heating pads on a regular basis. The pain went away, and I forgot about the pills. Eventually, I threw them out. Then I mentioned all that to the neighbor two doors down while we were chatting one day. You know, the guy with the scraggly hair and the goatee. And he just blew up. I’m talking legitimately angry. He said I could have made a bunch of money off of selling them. He said he could have sold them for me and taken a cut. At the time I was like, what is going on here? And you know something? I didn’t want to say it, but I might as well. The pills I was prescribed looked exactly the same as the ones laying on your floor right now. The ones that almost killed your son. So, to make a long story short, no, you shouldn’t always trust doctors.”

Tears trickled down Marjorie’s cheeks. She knew Amelia was right. She knew it because at the precise moment Amelia mentioned throwing the pills away, Marjorie herself felt a surge of anger. She herself wanted to throttle her friend for such a vile act.

“I’m an addict,” Marjorie whispered. “A doctor prescribed me some pills, and now I’m an addict.”

“It’s good you’re finally realizing it,” Amelia said, smiling sadly. “Half the solution is admitting there’s a problem.”

“What do you think I should do?” Marjorie asked.

“Ask for help,” Amelia replied. “I remember reading somewhere that there are things you can take that’ll cut down the cravings, that’ll give you a fighting chance. Start by doing some research. Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself.” She stopped, got up. “Anyway, I’ll see myself out, so you can let everything I said sink in.”

Amelia went to the door, then turned back. “And if you find yourself struggling, remember that you’re also doing it for your son.”

Marjorie tried to think about what to do next. This was a pivotal moment, and she did not want to lose the momentum Amelia had jumpstarted. Amelia was right: knowledge was power. Marjorie diligently took out her phone and searched for drugs that could help wean her off opioid medications. As she did so, a new ad temporarily diverted her attention. Our groundbreaking app will help to reduce your dependence on opioids while preserving your confidentiality. Download for a free 30-day trial today!

Intrigued, she almost tapped on it before she remembered it was an ad. Then she suddenly looked around. Why was it so quiet? Her eyes searched for Matt, and she gasped when she saw him sprawled on the floor in the kitchen, his eyes shut and his mouth hanging open in a silent scream. She scrambled to him and began jostling him.

“Wake up,” she begged. “Please, please wake up.”

Matt let out a groan, then opened his eyes. Why did you wake me up? he signed.

Marjorie took her hands off him, breathed a sigh of relief. Everything’s fine, she signed. I’ll take you to the bedroom, so you can sleep better.

After tucking Matt in, Marjorie resumed her research. There was methadone, which was proven to reduce cravings for opioids. Two specialized clinics were in South End. Curiously enough, not a single methadone clinic was in High Falls.

When she arrived the following morning at one of the South End clinics, she understood why. Many of those in the lengthy line bore the visible marks of undergoing trying times in their lives. As they shuffled along in their light jackets and faded jeans, she walked to the back of the line and joined them. The wait was over an hour long. At last, she was inside, speaking to a receptionist. She submitted her insurance information, jotted minutiae onto a form, and was told to wait until she was called in. The nurse gave her a small plastic cup filled with a reddish liquid. She gulped it down without questions, puckering her lips as her taste buds encountered the saccharine concoction of strong medicine.

“So, how long does this last?” she asked.

“For the rest of the day, hopefully,” the nurse said, already prepping for the next patient.

Marjorie blinked. “I don’t understand,” she said. “If it just lasts for a day, what do I do tomorrow?”

“You’ll come back here,” the nurse said. “We open early, at 4 am, so you’ll be able to get to work on time.”

The physical cravings that continuously gnawed at Marjorie seemed to lessen a bit. Just a bit. “Wait,” she said. “You’re saying I need to come here every day? Every single day?”

“That’s right, unfortunately,” the nurse said. “If you make progress with your addiction, you can have a limited ‘take home’ bottle. We need to protect against diversion: people selling it, abusing it. You’d be surprised at how many methadone overdoses we’ve had in this city. You know that white rapper, Eminem? He overdosed on methadone because he had too much of it from the wrong sources. It’s an opioid, after all.”

Later that afternoon, Marjorie sat in her trailer, watching a movie on her phone. She was nearly halfway through the film when it hit her: no restlessness, no physical cravings. She could actually concentrate now. She started to laugh.

“I feel great,” she announced to no one. She whooped, pumping her fists in the air, like her son sometimes did for no reason.

Marjorie had her life back. After picking up Matt from daycare that evening, she invited Amelia over for dinner to celebrate.

“I’m so happy for you,” Amelia said over bites of beans and chicken.

“I’m happy for me too,” Marjorie replied, winking back at Amelia. She had not felt this playful in a long time. Marjorie turned to Matt, who was now trying to wink at her. He was not good at it yet, and his other eye kept closing too.

“Copycat,” Marjorie said, sticking out her tongue.

Matt stuck out his tongue, while simultaneously signing to Marjorie.

“What did he sign to you?” Amelia asked.

“He signed: I can’t close just one eye,” Marjorie replied. “Too hard.” Both women laughed.

A trickle of dread seeped into Marjorie’s consciousness. She gathered herself, tried to act like everything was normal, but it wasn’t.

(Chime)

In the next episode, Marjorie is forced to make increasingly high stakes choices that will not only affect her future, but also her son’s.

Episode 5

Welcome to the fifth episode of the second season of the American Opioid podcast. If you just started listening, you’ll want to start at the beginning. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.

In the previous episode, Marjorie visited the methadone clinic, and had her neighbor Amelia over for dinner to celebrate that evening. But just as it appeared that everything was going to be fine, the celebration turned out to be premature. Let’s find out what happens next.

(Chime)

A trickle of dread seeped into Marjorie’s consciousness. She gathered herself, tried to act like everything was normal, but it wasn’t.

Amelia had just said something.

“I’m sorry, what?” Marjorie asked.

“How are you doing on the job search?” Amelia repeated.

“Oh. Ummm…” Marjorie racked her brains. She knew money was not the biggest issue to worry about. Matt was almost five, and Sibyl’s trust would soon deliver Marjorie a seven-figure windfall because he had not yet received a cochlear implant. But she had kept that to herself. “You know,” she said, “I actually prefer to take some time off to make sure I can fix the pill problem before I head back into the work world.”

Amelia pursed her lips, nodded. “Yeah, makes sense,” she said. “Do you have enough money, though?”

Oh, I will, Marjorie thought. Out loud, she said, “I’m fine, don’t worry about it.”

“Are you sure?” Amelia asked.

“Yes,” Marjorie snapped. She was vexed, but not because of Amelia. The trickle of dread had now become a stream, and she was partially submerged in its darkness. What is going on?

Amelia sensed the shift in tone, because she lowered her head and concentrated on finishing her food. The only sounds were slight grunts from Matt as he tried to wink with one eye while holding the lids of the other eye open with the tips of his fingers.

Shortly after, Amelia left. Marjorie sat on the couch, despondent. Matt was tugging on her arm. She lightly pushed him away. Mommy doesn’t feel good right now, she signed to him. She tried to distract herself by doing some research with her tablet.

The following morning, she arrived at the methadone at 4am on the dot. Already, even before the crack of dawn, there was a long line. Fellow sufferers, as antsy as her. They were also not getting enough. When Marjorie asked the nurse for a stronger dose, she was subjected to a speech about “meeting guidelines” and “avoiding abuse.”

Back home, after she received her dose, Marjorie continued her research. The gold standard, based on a bunch of websites, was buprenorphine. It protected users trying to quit from cravings and withdrawal, just like methadone, but it was also available to take home. That was her best bet.

The following day, after dropping off Matt at daycare, she called a clinic to schedule an appointment.

“Sorry, our physicians are not certified to prescribe that medication,” the receptionist said over the phone. “It requires an x-waiver.”

“Well, where can I get an x-waiver?”

“No, it’s the doctor who needs to have the x-waiver, in order to be able to prescribe buprenorphine.”

“Ah, I see… Do you know of any other clinics where a physician would have that?”

“You’ll have to check the clinics up in High Falls. That’s where they all are.”

Marjorie looked up all ten clinics, then proceeded to dial them one by one. Three had physicians who could prescribe buprenorphine. The first two were completely booked. Call us back in six months, she was told. The remaining clinic was more promising.

“We might be able to squeeze you in somewhere,” the receptionist said, then told her the astronomical cost. “Cash only.”

Marjorie blinked. “But doesn’t insurance cover it?” she asked.

There was a long pause. “Okay, thanks for asking that,” the receptionist said. “You know what? We’re shuffling a lot of things around in our schedule, you know how it is. Let me check once things settle down, and then we’ll get back to you. Thanks, and good luck!”

Marjorie was not stupid. She knew they were saving slots for people who could pay it all with cash, which was more than even the best insurance would reimburse. The clinic wanted patients from its own neighborhood, from High Falls. They were milking the x-waiver shortage for all it was worth. Segregation by income.

Marjorie got up to retrieve the mail from outside. Across the trailer park, she saw Beatrice step out of her trailer and head toward her car. Marjorie waved and smiled, remembering her lifesaving role a couple of nights ago, when she had provided the naloxone to save Matt’s life. Beatrice, upon seeing Marjorie, quickly looked away and hurried to her car. That was weird.

Marjorie headed back inside with the mail. One envelope stood out immediately. Ragle City Department of Education. She tore it open, eager to see how her application for Matt had turned out. Sadie and Tanya had attached statements with strong recommendations, and had assured her that approval was a done deal.

Not that she wanted Matt to stay deaf. Marjorie had completed the application for a very different reason. She had realized Matt’s deafness was his ticket to a school in High Falls, which could offer him a significantly higher quality of education. Once his enrollment was locked in, she would get him a cochlear implant. He would have the best of both worlds: he would hear, and his classmates would be the children of the affluent and the connected. Moreover, it was not too long before he turned five years old. The million-dollar payout from Sibyl’s trust would help Marjorie and Matt in myriad ways. Marjorie began to read the letter.

We regret to inform you that your application has been denied . . .

Her stomach lurched. This could not be right. She read over the letter again. “Limited municipal resources” and other flimsy pablum. Marjorie picked up the phone and called Sadie.

“Unbelievable,” Sadie said. “I’ve never heard of a decision like this, not in all my years working for the county. Your son’s application should have been a slam dunk. I know that your city just took on a new education chancellor who has a reputation for being stingy, but this is way out of line. We’re in the middle of a boom. The city has money, resources, no question.”

“What should I do?” Marjorie asked.

“With your permission, I can go to the press,” Sadie said. “Put a little heat on the mayor. I know he’s sensitive about bad publicity. Especially on education, which he campaigned on. Maybe something will happen, maybe it won’t, I really don’t know.”

“You have my permission, absolutely,” Marjorie said. “Hold their feet to the fire.”

“Let me think about what else we can do. The only other deaf school in the county is private, so they charge a hefty tuition. I’m guessing that would be out of reach, unless there was some kind of grant or scholarship.”

Scholarship . . . Marjorie thought about the first part of Sibyl’s trust, the provision that promised to pay all expenses at any deaf school. She was about to mention it to Sadie, but then stopped cold. Her mind was preoccupied by something else.

Marjorie thanked Sadie and wrapped up the call. Something was bothering her. Beatrice’s strange behavior not too long ago. People did not act that way for no reason. She thought back to the moment when she and Amelia were standing outside Beatrice’s door a couple of nights ago. Beatrice had been rambling on and on when suddenly, without warning, she shoved the naloxone into Marjorie’s hands and shut the door. Something had caused the shift from one extreme to the other. Marjorie mentally replayed the event in slow motion. It happened at the exact moment her gaze had fallen on the dirty plastic bag in the corner. Why did that bag look familiar? Marjorie tried to place it. Then Bennie’s words replayed in her mind. She takes stuff from me, stuff I need. She says she’s borrowing it, but she never gives it back.

The truth hit her with the force of a sledgehammer. That was the bag she had stored the pills and fentanyl patches in before burying them in the ground. Beatrice was the one who had dug it up. Beatrice was the thief, the criminal. The same guardian angel who had provided her with the drug that saved her son’s life was also the thieving bitch who had taken her shit. They were one and the same.

Marjorie wondered why Beatrice would leave the bag in a corner of the room like that, in plain sight. Then she found herself unable to remember anyone entering that trailer, other than Bennie. No need to hide it if no one ever came over.

Shaking with anger, Marjorie picked up the phone to call the police. Then stopped. The fentanyl patches . . . She could not report it because this was the second theft. The first theft had been committed by her. The patches belonged not to her, but to Agatha. Marjorie put the phone down. She could not get the police involved because she and Beatrice were in the same boat.

The anger lingered, but it was overshadowed by shame. Marjorie knew that she, like Beatrice, was engaging in self-destructive behavior she could not fully control. They were both victims. They were both experiencing the horrifying disintegration of their morals under the overwhelming weight of addiction. Drugs had transformed them from mothers into monsters.

As Marjorie thought about what she had resorted to, just so she could secure more drugs, the shame grew unbearable. She could make the shame fade away, at least for a few hours. She popped another pill, feeling like an alcoholic taking another swig: the cause of, and solution to, all her problems.

In the days that followed, Marjorie grew despondent. Sadie’s outreach to the press did not gain any traction. The reporters dismissed the rejected application as a boring bureaucratic matter. The clinics with the precious buprenorphine were too jampacked with patients of better means. Everything was going wrong for Marjorie and her son. Worst of all, her pills were running out again.

That weekend, she drove to bar after bar, trying to find Leroy. He was her only hope. All her other avenues had been exhausted. On Sunday night, just as she was about to give up, she finally spotted him hunched over on a stool in a dive bar, nursing a cocktail.

“Leroy,” she said, walking up. “Let’s talk.”

He glanced up at her, a quizzical expression on his face. “Have we met before?” he asked.

“Yes. Once. I need . . . I mean, I’d like to see your product.”

His face broke out into a smile, revealing his freaky teeth. “Oh yeah, you! How’ve you been?”

Marjorie was in no mood for pleasantries. “I’d like to see your product, please,” she said.

“Ok, but we’ll need to go elsewhere,” he said. “I don’t carry my product on me, for safety reasons.”

Elsewhere turned out to be the trunk of his car. Marjorie took in the cornucopia: oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, doxylamine. It was all here. She decided to buy three vials.

“Okay, that’ll be a one thousand forty-two dollars,” Leroy responded.

“What?!” Marjorie exclaimed. Leroy’s expression did not change. “Is this some kind of joke?” she asked.

“Supply is tight because of all the crackdowns recently,” Leroy responded. “It’s harder to get this stuff now, but I still do because I have my sources. And my product is guaranteed to be the real thing. Not like those high schoolers out there pushing a bunch of stuff that you don’t know what it is. They’ll sell you heroin and it ends up being fentanyl and the next thing you know, you overdosed from just one hit and BAM, you’re dead.”

Marjorie tried to bargain with Leroy, but no dice.

“I do have heroin, if you’re looking for something cheap. And mine’s legit, none of that black tar nonsense,” Leroy said.

Marjorie shook her head. “No, that’s illegal. I won’t take that.”

Leroy let out a hearty laugh. “Okay, whatever suits you, honey.” His expression grew serious. “But these are my prices, and they’re not changing. Take it or leave it.”

After heading back into the bar to withdraw cash from the ATM, Marjorie bought just one vial. She felt scalped and humiliated. But she bought it anyway.

“Here’s my number,” Leroy said. “Look forward to doing business with you again.”

Two weeks before Matt’s fifth birthday, Marjorie sat in her trailer, staring at her bank account balance on her phone. All the money she had so carefully saved up over the years was nearly gone. Leroy had it now. And she wanted more so she could give him more.

There were never enough pills. Marjorie was no longer taking them to get high. The honeymoon was long gone. She just needed enough to not get sick. Marjorie sighed, then applied for a cash advance off her credit card.

On Matt’s birthday, Marjorie sent in the paperwork to Sibyl. Proof of Matt’s age. His medical records certifying he was legally deaf. A certification that there was no evidence he had been subjected to any kind of operation for a cochlear implant.

The check promptly arrived in the mail. She passed her fingers over the thick paper, hardly able to believe the seven-figure amount printed there. Time to go to the bank.

The teller’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the check. “Holy shit,” she whispered. She looked up at Marjorie. “Did you win the lottery or something?”

Marjorie laughed. “Something like that.”

“Six hundred and fifty grand is nothing to sneeze at,” the teller said.

Marjorie frowned. “What do you mean? It’s a million.”

“Not after taxes,” the teller said. “A huge chunk of this is going to Uncle Sam. Might want to talk to an accountant to get that sorted out before the IRS comes knocking on your door. They always find out.”

Oh shit. In all her glee over the payout, Marjorie had forgotten about reality. She headed home, less cheerful than before.

In her trailer, she sorted through the mail. One envelope stood out. It was from Lakeview Elementary School, the public school closest to her. Kindergarten would start for Matt in less than a month. With that knowledge came the abject shame, the sickening awareness that she had compromised her son’s future for dollars in the present. Sibyl had won.

Marjorie took out the letter from Sibyl, the document listing the provisions of the trust. She thought about what Sadie had said about the private deaf school elsewhere in the county. Sibyl’s trust would pay the full tuition cost without limit. The anger rose in Marjorie. Sibyl was pulling the strings, and Marjorie was a puppet, dutifully carrying out her instructions. This would not do. This was her son’s life.

Her hands shaking, Marjorie tore up Sibyl’s letter, put the pieces in the garbage. Matt would not stay deaf. She would get him the cochlear implant. She would fix what had gone neglected for too long. In the meantime, she would not interfere with his enrollment in the public school. That was where he belonged, in the real world, because he would only be deaf temporarily. For a few days.

Days that would become weeks, weeks that would become months. And thus it came to pass that Matthew Kane would have the worst of both worlds: neither deaf in a dedicated private school for the deaf, nor being able to hear in a public school. Rather, he would be deaf in one of the roughest public-school systems in the state, a district that had no special accommodations for those with his disability. It was under these inauspicious circumstances that America’s opioid son began kindergarten.

(Chime)

This concludes Season 2 of the American Opioid Podcast. We would love to hear your feedback about the podcast. We would also like to bring your attention to the American Opioid Project, a crowdsourced encyclopedia of the opioid crisis that will help the public understand how the crisis was experienced in all 50 states from a variety of perspectives. Share your story today by visiting www.americanopioid.org. Take care.

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