Copyright © 2019 by Jamal Khan
Welcome to the American Opioid podcast, written and narrated by Jamal Khan. The podcast features a research-backed fictional narrative about the opioid crisis. Additional episodes will feature interviews with real-life individuals involved in the opioid crisis in various capacities. For more information, or to get in touch with the creator of the podcast, check out the website at www.americanopioid.org.
Disclaimer: This podcast is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or behavioral health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on this podcast.
And now we begin the first episode of Season One:
They met when she could not speak and he could not hear. They met in the most affordable day care center in the City of Ragle, one of the nation’s many flashpoints of the opioid crisis. He was two. She was three. They relied on each other for survival.
They met when she could not speak and he could not hear. His name was Matt. Once the divorce was finalized, Matt’s mother started working again, and dropped him off at City Day Nursery every day in the early morning. It was crowded and cacophonous, with tiny bodies scampering to and fro across a fraying carpet anchored by blaring TVs, but it was all she could afford. Even at that young age, Matt felt the sting of loss, of an opportunity slipping away from his fingertips, of missing what might have been. At the time, Matt’s father was completely unaware that Matt was deaf. Not that it would have made a difference in his decision to leave and never come back. But still.
They met when she could not speak and he could not hear. Her name was Jane. Her parents were still together, but her father had been laid off from his construction job because of the recession looming over the country, taking out casualties at random and leaving the survivors on tenterhooks. He had found a gig in the hospitality industry, but there was not anywhere near as much money in it, so her mother had started working as well. Hence, Jane’s entry into City Day Nursery, on the other side of the turnpike.
Jane was an adorable little girl, more than most other girls her age, but her childhood was blotched by her voice. At the age of two, she had developed a throat infection. Jane’s overworked parents had just given her cough syrup, oblivious to the fact that it was much more serious. Because the infection was not diagnosed until it was too late, the surgeon had to remove parts of her voice box in the ER. Child Protective Services had looked into the matter, but it was routine and never led to anything.
The surgery that saved Jane’s life left her with a voice that was scratchy and guttural, with a grinding texture reminiscent of an engine starved of lubrication. Even at her young age, she noticed when adults, hearing her for the first time, would suddenly have quizzical expressions fall over their faces. Then it would be smoothed over, and they would pretend that nothing was wrong.
The kids at the day care, and later in school, were not as subtle.
“What’s wrong with Jane’s voice? Why does she sound like that?”
“Hush, hush. It’s all right,” replied a caretaker. “Sometimes people sound different, just like sometimes people look different. But that’s fine. Think about how boring the world would be if everyone looked and sounded and acted the same!”
Sometimes the intervention helped, sometimes it had no effect, and sometimes it made things worse. Sometimes, the teasing slipped below the radar. Later, in elementary school, she would be called names like “robot” and “Satan.” But far earlier than that, the damage had been done. She never spoke to anyone other than her parents. When out in public, she could not even look up at people. Instead, she trained her eyes downward, her field of vision consisting solely of pavement and asphalt, tile and carpet, big shoes and little shoes.
At City Day Nursery, she let herself get sucked into the comforting aura of one of the TVs clustered throughout the space. There were usually at least several showing cartoons. Gluing herself to a screen allowed her to not have to speak to anyone. She would sit beside the other children, who would be too hypnotized by the animation to chat.
During the boring commercials, she looked around. She would much rather be doing other things, like playing with the blocks or the Barbies. But there were always groups of children in the way, and they would be chattering amongst each other excitedly. So she shied away, despite her yearning for something more interactive.
Then one day, she noticed a new boy at the day care. From the start, she could tell he was different. He did not interact with anyone, just like her, but he also avoided the TVs. He just sat and observed the other children, lost himself in them, until he seemed to be unaware of his own self. When the other children called out to him, he did not react at all. Just stared at them instead. Soon, Jane stared at Matt, trying to figure him out.
Matt was particularly drawn to the blocks. He would take a few, but instead of building something, he would just move them around on the floor with his hands, fascinated. But other children would butt in and grab random blocks for whatever they were building, and he would cry in frustration. He wanted everything to be a certain way, and seemed unable to tolerate the slightest disturbance.
Then one day, he noticed a box of crayons in the corner, forgotten. He removed them from the box, gently, and spent an entire day lining them up in different combinations, while Jane watched, intrigued.
One of the caregivers, concerned about Matt’s lack of interaction with the other children, was kind. She gave him some scraps of paper, and, holding his tiny hand within hers, helped him do some coloring. When Matt saw that the color from the crayon had been magically transferred onto the paper, he gaped at what they had done, at what he had done. Then, looking up at her with sheer joy in his eyes, he jumped up and down, arms raised, fists clenched in jubilation. She gave him a hug, and from then on, she stored his crayons and papers in a special place in the back, bringing them out when he arrived and keeping them safe when he was gone.
Jane watched all this take place with wonder. Something about Matt was magnetic to her. He would sit with the crayons, experimenting with different approaches to drawing, and soon, shading. At one point — she did not remember exactly when — she came forward and sat next to him as he drew. For a couple of hours, he did not even realize she was there because he was so absorbed. When he finally did notice her presence, he eyed her warily, thinking that she would intrude on what he was doing. Over time, though, he saw that she was not interfering with his process, not pawing at the crayons like the other kids, so he did not mind having her around. In fact, he kind of liked the attention, the audience of one, in the frenetic, packed playroom. He was stuck to his drawings, and she was stuck to him.
Not infrequently, a waft would flow through the room and cause noses to wrinkle. The close quarters made it worse. One of the caregivers would then need to pick up toddlers in the vicinity of the stench and sniff bottoms to identify the culprit, and then bring the little one to the back for a diaper change. This was routine. About a half dozen signaled the passage of half the day, and a little over a full dozen foretold the moment when exhausted, irritable parents would soon start arriving to pick up their children from the harried staff. Matt and Jane were mostly oblivious, until their own turns came to leave. He left a bit before her, and she would feel anxious in the interim, though less so, because most of the other children were already gone.
She felt safe with him. The two of them would always be off in their corner, away from the TVs, away from the other children, in their own cozy little world. She could speak as much as she wanted, could sing and scream, wail and weep, without fear of being judged or mocked. She could be herself. She loved it, and she flourished.
Over time, their relationship became more reciprocal. He would sit patiently, watching her, without saying anything. She would act out small scenes she made up in her head: the pirate, the bad guy, the damsel in distress. She would transition between the characters expertly, playing each one with aplomb. And he would always watch, quietly, always with interest. He did not applaud. He did not need to. The sheer intensity of his gaze upon her was enough.
He was her reason for getting on, the source of her confidence. He gave her back her voice. She felt as if she once again had full permission to use it. Other children would openly guffaw at her soliloquys, sometimes from just a few steps away, finding a common identity in their communal ridicule of her.
Matt was never like that. He rarely said anything, and yet it was as if he communicated with her the most, as if his calm assurance could hold her in place upright, impervious to the gusts of laughter and scorn that crashed against her from all sides. He was an oasis amidst the unforgiving desert of the social. She loved him for that. She would softly croon into his ear with her broken voice, a voice he could not hear.
He was friendless, and she was friendless, and they connected in their friendlessness. They became something that most of the friended could not understand, and that some never would.
Later, when they started grade school at different places, they would see each other much less, just in the afternoons. Still, each day, she would yearn for the time when she would be able to see him again, be herself again, be safe and free again.
The two made an indelible mark on each other, a bond that would persist over vastly changing circumstances, despite the events that would follow, heralded by an impending crisis that would leave its deadly mark on all fifty states.
Already, there were signs. The uniformed men who marched in, whispered to a staff member, then escorted a child out of the building. A caregiver who kept nodding off, despite remonstrations from her colleagues, until one time when the one-year-old she was holding slipped from her grasp and thudded against the floor. Jane saw a two grownups rush toward them, huddle over the scene, gesture animatedly. A few minutes later, paramedics rushed in and took the baby. Jane saw a spot of blood on the floor. She did not see that caregiver again.
Amidst the disruption and dysfunction, Matt took some of the crayons and drew various shapes on the blank white paper. At first, they were scratches, doodles, shadings. But over time, they became more elaborate. He would concentrate on one for a very long time, completing it only after several days, then hold it out with his arms completely extended, scrutinizing it carefully. Then he would draw the next one, and she could see the resemblance between it and the previous one, with slight alterations. Then he would move on to the next one, and then the next, each succeeding iteration taking less time than the one before.
Sometimes, he would show her his drawings in a series, as if he were telling her a story. Then he would dance around, excited, fists manically pumping in the air, as if he had accomplished something big. She did not understand what he thought he had achieved, since she could not really make out any recognizable shapes, but she felt just as happy for him nonetheless. Then he would start over again.
She watched him draw, and he watched her act. By observing her closely, he learned how to lip read at the most basic level. He did not yet have the privilege of learning sign language from a professional. So he sat silently and watched. Soon, he made out her name. Of course, because he was picking it all up from scratch, his lip-reading skills were not precise.
She pointed toward herself, told him her name was Jane. He called her Rain.
“No, Jane!” she said, giggling. She pointed to herself again. “Jane, Jane!”
He smiled shyly. “Rain.”
Then, one day, when he was nine and she was ten, Matt was not there when she arrived that afternoon. That was okay, she thought. Maybe he had gotten sick or something. A cold had kept her away for a couple of days. Surely, he would come back.
He was not there the following day, or the day after that. Jane looked around, frantic. Where did he go? What had happened?
She began to worry. Then the week concluded, and the weekend arrived. She did not enjoy it. The whole time, she was pensive. On Monday, when he failed to show up yet again, something collapsed inside her and all reserve went out the window.
“Where’s Matt? Where’s Matt?”
“Matt! Matt! Where is he?!”
When she saw the quizzical looks, her panic spiraled out of control, and she started crying hysterically.
“Do a search for that other kid, will you? I can’t take much more of this awful noi–, I mean, she shouldn’t be crying like this. You know who I’m talking about. The one who’s with her all the time, with the crayons, off in the corner.”
It turned out that Matthew Kane was no longer coming to the day care. His mother had figured out something called “alternative arrangements.” It was a fancy way of saying that he was lost to her for good.
Jane fell into a deep depression. She wandered around the facility in a haze. Before, school had been easy to handle. She had put up with the teasing and the isolation by looking forward to the time when she would be able to see Matt again, be herself again. But now that was gone. When she lost him, she felt as if she had lost herself.
Jane did not utter a single word outside her family for nearly a year. In school, she was held back a grade. The administration recommended to her parents that she see a therapist. Her parents were also concerned, and would have scheduled an appointment, if they had insurance.
Jane’s life raft was gone. She would have to deal with it all on her own. She did not know that the opioid crisis took him away from her, but she did know that she would need to learn how to survive without him.
Welcome to American Opioid. Now, as a listener, you may be wondering: where are the pills, the needles, the other drug paraphernalia? Where are the sirens, the body bags, the chalk marks? Is this podcast really about opioids? Yes, it is. But it’s also about people, and their family members and friends. You see, behind each statistic that documents an overdose death, there was once a person whose experience of the world was just as rich and vivid as yours or mine. And each one of them, and each one of us, looked at the world long ago as Jane once did: through the eyes of an innocent child who wanted nothing more than to know why her playmate had suddenly disappeared.
Opioids did not show up in this episode. They will not show up in the next episode either, or the one after that. You see, we need to explore something else first. Matt’s mother did not believe he was deaf, despite being informed of that fact months before Matt and Jane ever met.
Welcome to episode 2 of the first season of the American Opioid podcast. If you’re new to the podcast, you’ll want to start with the first episode before moving on to this one. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.
The series of events that led to Matt’s disappearance from City Day Nursery began with something that had happened months before he met her, halfway across the country. His mother, Marjorie, took him on a trip at the request of a relative she had not spoken with in a long time.
The mansion echoed with the footfalls of extended family members who had come from the four corners of the globe to pay their respects. The patriarch commanded reverence, even from his casket. The face, though grayed and sunken, retained that majestic air of a life that mattered. The eyes of the observers lingered upon it, reflecting on memories of statements and speeches gone by, when it had been animated and flushed.
Marjorie stood apart from most of them. She did not like being there. The looks, the whispers. They knew her husband had left her. Some had warned her it would happen. The smug satisfaction that lingered in the air sickened her, made her want to bolt from the place and go back to her small but comfortable trailer park home. Why was she here?
But the elders had specifically stressed her presence, had ensured that the plane ticket would be paid for, that Marjorie and her son would be well accommodated. Marjorie had not enjoyed a real vacation since Matt was born, so she had said yes. She did not know the deceased personally, but it was impossible not to know who he was. The entire extended family knew him, or at least knew of him, and would refer to him constantly. He was a bright spot in a clan that had largely failed to keep up with the times. As Marjorie took in tidbits of gossip, she found out that she was not the only visitor with problems, financial and otherwise.
The last time Marjorie had visited the towering manor, she had just been a child. Her memories had been drained of their specifics, evoking no more than the sheer size of the place. So she wandered throughout the cavernous interior, with Matt cradled in her arms. He was nodding off, and a line of spittle slowly worked its way down her shoulder from his half-closed mouth. On the second floor, she noticed a room with the door left ajar. Curious, she peered inside. The room was large but relatively plain. It could have been a room in any upscale suburban home. The curtains were drawn back from the windows, illuminating the inside with cloud-filtered sunlight. There was a bed with a small table next to it, stacked with medications, dentures, and a couple of novels. Lying on the bed was an old woman whose face was vaguely familiar. The woman looked lazily over to her, and Marjorie saw a glint of recognition.
“Hello, my child. Please come in,” the old woman said. Marjorie stepped inside, greeting the woman while racking her brains to remember her name, to pinpoint her exact place in the sprawling family tree. Marjorie studied the face closely, noticed the same regal bearing that she had seen earlier in the departed, and realized that she was looking at the sister of the patriarch. Sibyl Vane.
Marjorie paused. She remembered the woman. She also remembered her reputation. The old woman’s brother, even in death, had been celebrated across the extended family. His lasting presence in their ranks was reassuring, a comforting sign that pure talent was there too, not just talent mixed with crazy.
The patriarch’s sister, lying comfortably on the bed, one pillow behind her head, another supporting her left shoulder, was considered to be one of the crazies. She generally kept to herself. The few times she was out in their midst, she would utter phrases that made no sense, and would stare at the blank wall for a long time while others were talking, as if watching an invisible movie projected onto it. It was not in a rude way, because her face was rapt and beaming rather than bored, and during the few times she did speak, she would interject with astonishing insight. She seemed to have a knack for detecting how people were actually feeling, despite the words they used. Many people preferred talking to her rather than her late brother because they found her less intimidating. But at the inevitable point in each conversation, she would veer off into nonsensical musings again, and the crazy would be back.
“You are the first relative I have seen this weekend,” Sibyl murmured. She sat up slowly, leaned against the headrest. Marjorie wanted to help but Matt had begun to stir, twisting to and fro, keeping both of her arms occupied.
“Are you ill?” Marjorie asked.
Sibyl smiled. “When you reach my age, what’s the difference?” She noticed Matt, and suddenly her expression changed. She studied the child intently, as he took in his surroundings. She watched as he looked out the window on the far end of the room, the snowflakes fluttering to the ground, his body swaying slightly from side to side. Marjorie tried to say something, but Sibyl shushed her. She continued staring at the boy, with that same attuned expression that Marjorie would remember years later in a different context. It made her deposit Matt into Sibyl’s arms the second she held them out. Matt swiveled his head up, took in the beaming face.
The old woman looked down at the small child, believing him to be her kin. Not just by blood, but real kin. The kind that recognize each other without any introduction.
“What is his name, my dear?” Sibyl asked.
The old woman smiled at Marjorie. “I knew there had to be one more. I waited for so long. I had begun to lose hope that I would see it resurface within my lifetime. Your son is special.”
“He is a diamond. My world,” Marjorie said. “But it’s been hard, you know, with the circumstances, him not having a father…”
Sibyl nodded. “I know all too well about what happened. Sorry to hear it. But enough about that.” She waved her hand dismissively, then examined Marjorie closely, almost as closely as she had examined Matt. “He has a gift, you know.”
Despite herself, Marjorie felt a glow of pride. She knew that there was something about her son that defied description. Something about the way he studied things, the concentration. Almost like Sibyl, she suddenly noticed.
But Sibyl looked sad. “He will go through a lot of hardship. That is the fate of our kind. People will not like that he is different. Some may be afraid of him. Most will simply laugh him off as an eccentric. He will be lonely.” The short, clipped sentences tumbled out, faster and faster. It was as if she had held them in for a long time. “My own cousin, for example, was subjected to a failed exorcism. They thought she was possessed. The gift was a curse for her. She did not know how to keep her mouth shut in those early days. She paid the price. I was smarter. I waited until I was too old for it to matter. People will not be alarmed by what you say if they think you are going senile.”
Marjorie felt her stomach sinking. Matt, ending up like crazy Sibyl?
The old woman continued. “Despite my age, I try to keep up with current events. Things are changing. People are more tolerant, and technology can work wonders. Your son will be lost for some time, but that is necessary. When he finds his calling, he will know it immediately, and he will make his mark. If my understanding of trends is correct, technology may reach the point where it will amplify his abilities a hundredfold, a thousandfold. He will be an artist in the realm of science, or perhaps a scientist in the realm of art. You cannot help him reach that point. You can only help him by staying out of his way. But he will become a target, just as I will become a target in the next few minutes.”
“What do you mean?” Marjorie asked, alarmed.
“Success draws attention, and some of it will be unwanted attention. Promise me this. When he begins to say things that make no sense to you — and he will, there is no doubt — promise me that you will encourage him not to talk about those things to anyone else. He must keep them a secret for as long as possible. He should not draw attention to himself.”
Not knowing what else to do, Marjorie nodded. “I promise.”
Sibyl’s face was grim. “It will not be easy. He will be desperate for someone who understands him. Someone who experiences the world the way he does, the way I do. I never found such a person, other than my cousin, who died many years ago. I thought I did, once. The man I loved told me he understood me.” Her expression grew bitter. “It broke my heart when I realized he was just toying with me, playing along while telling everyone behind my back what a nutcase I was. I never trusted another man again, other than my brother, who took me in when I was penniless and no longer slim and pretty, when the rest of the world turned its back on me. He helped me redirect my gift in a more positive direction. I have been blessed. What am I complaining about? I have so much to be grateful for.”
The merriment was back, the twinkle in her eyes. “When I was a little girl, I would hide in the closet for hours to shut it all out. The world was too much. I wanted someone who could guide me through it, explain it all to me, how everything was related to everything else. But there was no one. So I taught myself. I spent years on my own, testing things, figuring them out. The gift is hard to explain. Over the years, I have come to see it as more gift than curse. I know what they all say about me, by the way. That I am crazy. You must think so as well.” She held up her hand to prevent any protest. “But the one who steps out of Plato’s cave and then comes back to describe his observations to the others will always be described that way. As a madman.”
The old woman stopped suddenly. Matt sat quietly in her arms, content, not wriggling about as he usually did when handed to a stranger. For some reason, that made Marjorie more uneasy. Sibyl’s eyes widened, and she leaned her head very close to the small child, almost as if she were trying to hear his heartbeat. She looked up at Marjorie, an expression of utter disbelief on her face. Her breathing was shallow and heavy. She gripped Matt tightly, and he began to writhe, moaning with discomfort. The old woman appeared oblivious, continuing to stare at Marjorie.
“My God,” Sibyl murmured. “Oh my child, my child…”
Hearing Matt’s sounds of pain, Marjorie stepped forward instinctively. She leaned in and lifted Matt away, took several steps back. She rocked him lightly, soothing him away from the disturbance. Her overwhelming urge was to protect him from the crazy old woman. But Sibyl did not react. Instead, she sat back, deep in thought. The expression on her face was one of perplexity.
“This is untrodden territory. You are holding a weapon of mass destruction in your hands. He is one of a kind, no peers. No one is like him, not even me — “
Just then, they heard hushed voices approaching, and then some relatives trickled in. The old woman became silent as a gravestone. The trickle accelerated, became a flood, and soon the whole room was packed. A burgeoning crowd formed outside the door, composed of those who were not lucky enough to get there first. Marjorie found herself jostled backward even as she tried to remain stationary, as if she were standing on a slowly moving treadmill. She tried to make out what was happening amidst the hubbub. It turned out that over ninety percent of the entire inheritance had been left with Sibyl, transforming her from the forgotten relative to the new family celebrity. Suitors lined up on all sides to kiss the ring. It was disgusting.
Marjorie did not get a private moment with Sibyl again. Nor did she go out of her way. On the contrary, she deliberately avoided her. Matt could have been hurt by the way Sibyl had tightly held onto him. Marjorie could not wait to leave. Everything about the weekend was creeping her out.
When Marjorie arrived back home, she immediately plunged into the extra shifts she had signed up for at work to make up for the time she had taken off. Then the garbage disposal broke, and then a neighbor came by needing a shoulder to cry on after another fight with her boyfriend. Sibyl receded from her thoughts.
A week later, the doorbell rang. The deliveryman squinted at her. “Marjorie Kane?” She nodded. “Two packages for you, from a … Sibyl Gray.” The boxes were massive, and his face crinkled with strain as he lugged them into the cramped space. She signed the confirmation of delivery and he headed out, leaving her alone with both boxes. Matt was asleep in the next room. Marjorie went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, came back, and started cutting through the packing tape on the first box.
It contained books, dozens and dozens of hardcover books, neatly stacked and lined up horizontally, as if on a shelf. Marjorie marveled at the painstaking care in the custom binding. She ran her finger along the elegant, embossed spines, from one slim volume to next. She pulled one out, hearing a pleasing shhh sound as it glided smoothly against its companions on each side. When she cracked it open, her nostrils took in the sharp, fresh scent of high quality paper. She turned a thick page, then another. With each turn, she saw the same kind of diptych, the same blunt contrast between left and right. On the lefthand page, some kind of art. An array of colors, melding into each other in various combinations, as if an artist had partially mixed drops of paint from five or six different pails. On the righthand page, a crude drawing, only slightly more elaborate than stick figures. It was strange to see such an amateur effort right next to something much more impressive. She never understood why modern art did dumb things like this.
But was this modern art? What was this? Who was the artist? She took out the first book and opened the cover. No copyright or publisher information. No table of contents. No title and no author. As she flipped through the pages, she realized that the book did not contain a single word. Just colors and drawings, juxtaposed side by side. She picked up the knife and cut through the packing tape on the second box. Same as the first box. Books, the same kind, and nothing more. The only words were her name and address. No return address.
She was sitting cross-legged as she pored over one of the books again, trying to find out what it was about, when the doorbell rang again. She got up, leaving the open book on the floor. At the door was the same deliveryman.
“Sorry, a third item. Don’t worry. This one’s much smaller, which is a relief for both our sakes,” he said with a slight grin, handing her a large, sealed envelope. She thanked him, closed the door. Sat on the creaky couch, tore it open. Began to read. Some kind of trust account. Her heart began to race. It appeared that virtually limitless funds were available to her, provided that she spent them solely for –
“No,” she said. She continued to read, then shook her head. “No,” she said louder. She stopped reading, stuffed the papers back into the envelope. “You crazy old woman, you don’t know anything!” she yelled to no one. She grabbed the book and threw it against the wall. It fell to the floor in an opened position, spine down, pages up. Matt started crying in the other room.
Marjorie began to breathe again. She walked into the next room to comfort him. She did not use a crib for Matt. Instead, she slept right next to him in one bed, just as her mother had done with her, which was useful because it saved space. The fear of rolling over and injuring the child had dissipated when she realized just how sensitive she was to any sound he made, even if she was in a deep sleep.
Marjorie felt so comforted herself as she shushed him that she fell asleep when he did. Mother and child were one in slumber, breathing in and out in the same consistent rise and fall of life in suspension.
The next morning, when she woke up, she noticed that he was not in the bed. She did not panic, because she knew that this had happened a number of times before. Matt was adventurous from the moment he could crawl. And since her mattress was smack-dab on the floor, there was no fear that he would fall from a height. She walked into the living room and then froze.
There was a dent in the wall from where she had thrown the book. But that was not what drew her attention. Matt was huddled over the fallen book on the floor, studying it. Marjorie remained frozen, observing him. After a length of time, he turned the page and thoroughly studied the color mixture on the left. Then he briefly glanced at the crude drawings on the right before turning the page again.
“Matt,” she said. He continued looking at the book. She leaned forward. “Matt!” she said in a much louder voice. He turned his head up and to the side, looked at her. A wave of relief flooded over her. Thank God. She scooped him up from the floor and carried him to the couch. There, she held him close to her. He squirmed in her arms, which surprised her. He usually liked it when she picked him up. When she lowered him to the floor, he crawled straight back to the book.
She leaned back, unworried. Children loved to play with a new object, a new toy. After they had gotten enough of it so that it lost its novel sheen, they would forget about it. That was why the affluent families she remembered from her childhood had enormous piles of toys all over the place.
But his interest did not flag the next day. Or the next. Or the following week. Or the following month. He was captivated by the books. Marjorie felt worried enough to leave the books out of his sight every once in a while, but he would throw a fit, screeching until she gave the book back and his mental hunger was satiated. She tried to substitute other books, picture books from the library, but he had no interest in those.
Shortly afterward, she started taking him to City Day Nursery. He met Rain. He discovered that he could create his own colors on the page, almost as if by magic. And thus it came to pass that, for a formidable portion of his formative years, Matt studied color patterns at home and then attempted to recreate them in day care.
When Marjorie threw the book against the wall, she had assumed the sound had wakened Matt. It did not occur to her that the vibration from the impact could travel through the mobile home and disturb him, even if he was unable to hear the sound. When Marjorie leaned forward and called his name loudly, she assumed that he heard her. It did not occur to her that he could see a motion in the corner of his eye. Or perhaps she did not allow herself to entertain the possibility. Either way, the envelope lay there, the papers inside forgotten, the trust untapped, the funds that were allocated to pay for all expenses for his education at a deaf school of her choosing.
Join us next time for episode 3 of the first season of American Opioid, where Marjorie is faced with undeniable evidence that her son is deaf, and must make a decision that will alter the course of his life.
Welcome to Episode 3 of the first season of the American Opioid podcast. If you’re new to the podcast, you’ll want to start with Episode 1 first. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.
Marjorie sensed that something was different when she arrived at City Day Nursery to pick up Matt. The receptionist asked her for her name again, then asked her to have a seat before she spoke into an intercom. Usually, Marjorie would just wait by the front desk.
After about a minute, Marjorie got up and walked back to the receptionist. “What happened? Did something happen to Matt? Is he all right?”
Just then, a caregiver entered the lobby, leading Matt by the hand. Marjorie hurried to them and picked up Matt. He smiled at her like always, his cute little baby teeth gleaming pearly white.
“Hello,” said the caregiver. “I would like to speak with you, if you have a moment.”
“Sure,” Marjorie said.
“Your son…how old is he now?”
“Two and a half.”
The caregiver nodded. “I see.” She paused, then spoke slowly, carefully. “I look after many children here. The toddlers who have reached his age are all moving about, chattering. He doesn’t do that. But that’s fine, because he has a playmate with him the whole time, a girl. What worries me is that I have never once actually heard him speak. There are moments when he seems to say a few things to his playmate, but she’s almost always the one doing the talking. Has he ever spoken to you?”
Marjorie felt her cheeks burn. “He’s fine, thank you. The pediatrician told me that many children don’t talk until they are three.”
The caregiver frowned, as if she doubted the veracity of that information. “There’s something else I must mention. This is the real reason I asked to speak with you today.”
The caregiver’s voice lowered, causing Marjorie to lean in. “Earlier today, the fire alarm went off. It’s very loud, even for us adults. I instructed all the children who could walk to cover their ears and follow me outside. My colleagues carried the infants out as fast as they could. Virtually all the children were crying, and it was a hot mess.
“Turned out that a new employee had accidentally put something with tinfoil in the microwave, and there was just a burning smell, no real danger,” the caregiver said quickly when Marjorie’s eyes widened. “Anyway, I went back inside to check to see if we had missed anybody, and I saw just two kids. Your son and his playmate, Jane. She was tugging on his sleeve, trying to pull him up and away from his crayons and coloring, but he was shaking his head. She was frantic, screaming at him to come, but he shook her off. Like he was irritated at being interrupted. Finally, just when I was about to reach them, he got up and started following her outside. The moment she saw that he was following her, the girl immediately put her hands over her ears to block out the shrieking sound. But his arms were at his sides the whole time. As if the alarm didn’t bother him. As if he didn’t hear it.”
The caregiver took a deep breath. “Ms. Kane, is your son … hearing impaired?”
Marjorie shook her head, mumbled, “No, he can hear. He just gets fixated on things, that’s all. No need to bring this up with me again. I have to go now.” She turned and walked out of the day care center as fast as she could.
At home, Marjorie watched Matt happily lose himself in one of Sibyl’s books. He had finished the first box of books, and was halfway through the second. She noticed that he had developed a habit. After finishing the latest volume, he would go back and reread the books from the beginning, going through them at a slightly faster pace until he reached the one he had just finished. Only then would he move on to the next one. It was as if each additional book contained an insight that caused him to take in the previous books in a new light.
Marjorie sometimes felt the urge to pick up the phone and call Sibyl, ask her what the books were about. But then she remembered the trust, and the funds available to pay for a deaf school. Deaf school. Sibyl had somehow sensed, so early onward, that something was wrong with Matt’s hearing. Marjorie had responded by shutting her out, refusing to answer her calls or reply to her letters.
But she could not shut out the truth forever. She had to know. Marjorie scheduled an appointment with the pediatrician, who said the same damn thing about Matt’s absence of speech not being a big concern.
“A fire alarm went off at his daycare and he didn’t hear it,” Marjorie shot back. “How do you explain that?”
The pediatrician raised an eyebrow.
Matt was immediately scheduled for a hearing check. After what seemed like forever, the audiologist took off his headset and looked at Marjorie sadly. The next few moments were a blur. She was told about “options” and “staying optimistic” and how it was better that they caught it now rather than later, although catching it sooner than now would have been “a bit better.”
“The good thing is that here in Ragle, early intervention is available from birth to the end of his third year of age,” the pediatrician said, “so you have access to free services for over a year, until he turns four.”
Marjorie was unimpressed. “If this had been caught sooner, he would have had those services for a lot longer.”
The pediatrician went into another long spiel about “staying optimistic.”
A few days later, there was a knock on the door of Marjorie’s trailer park home. Two women stood on the porch, one squat and square, the other thin as a reed. The skinny one cleared her throat. “Hello. I spoke with you over the phone earlier. We work for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. We’re here to provide sign language learning services.”
Marjorie blinked. “Ok, great,” she said, looking from one to the other. “I didn’t realize two people would be required.”
“Oh, my colleague will be teaching your son,” the slim woman said. “I will be teaching you.”
Oh, of course, Marjorie thought sheepishly. Not much use teaching Matt if his own mother would be unable to communicate with him.
And so it began, the two women coming three times a week. The slim woman, Sadie, patiently explained to Marjorie how sign language differed from spoken English.
“There’s more nuance in the language, based on how you make the movements,” Sadie said early on. “Sort of like tone of voice, but it goes beyond emphasis, into shades of meaning. Movement and meaning are deeply intertwined, which makes the communication more intimate, in a way. English words don’t have the same kind of elasticity.”
Marjorie nodded without saying anything. Such matters held little interest for her because she was struggling plenty hard just to learn enough to communicate at all. Matt, in the other room, seemed to be doing much better. Periodically, she would hear him let out an ahhh!, a wordless expression of joy. The hefty woman, Tanya, would laugh.
“Very good, very goooood,” Tanya would coo, signing the equivalent to him.
Sadie reassured Marjorie that small children were far better, even exponentially better, at picking up a new language. But if Marjorie was persistent, she would be able to communicate with Matt on just about any topic. “I’ve done this with so many families in the county, and I saw the best results when the parents had full commitment to fluency,” Sadie said.
Over time, it became easier for Marjorie to expand her vocabulary, and she began to appreciate how the language had a kind of flow to it. But the year was passing by too quickly, and soon the women would no longer be able to teach her and Matt, at least not for free. Sadie and Tanya sensed this too, because they looked sad. Especially Tanya.
One day, when the two women arrived, they asked if they could speak with her before starting the lessons. She nodded. They sat in her living room. Matt wandered in, but Tanya quickly signed something to him and he bounded off to the bedroom.
“What did you just say to him?” Marjorie asked, curious.
“That if he waited in the bedroom, I would give him a piece of candy,” Tanya said, chuckling. Then her face smoothed out, became serious. “Marjorie, there’s something about Matt that I think you should be aware of.”
Marjorie glanced at Sadie, who was expressionless, then back at Tanya. “Ok,” she said, her chest and throat tightening.
“I’ve been teaching sign language to deaf children for a long time,” Tanya said. “And I’ve simply never seen someone like Matt. Ever. You see, we barely had a year, and he is completely fluent. There’s just not much more I can teach him. He’s like a sponge. He picked it all up, and he can sign with a speed and comfort that I have simply never seen with a child his age. But not just that. It’s the way he signs. He pauses at just the right moment, and then he accelerates until … I just can’t describe it. It’s like, he has a sense of timing that I can barely understand, let alone explain. He signs with eloquence.” Tanya took a deep breath. “Marjorie, there is no doubt in my mind that your son is gifted.”
Marjorie sat, dumbstruck. The tightness in her body was gone, and had been replaced by a warm glow. My son, my child, is gifted… She felt almost giddy, her cheeks reddening. She remembered what Sibyl had told her, a few years ago. He has a gift, you know. It was one thing to hear it from a batty old relative. It was quite another to hear it from a professional.
Marjorie struggled to contain her excitement. Prudence was the best response. She pursed her lips, attempted to appear skeptical. “So, you’re saying that my son is some kind of…” she struggled to remember what the word was.
“Prodigy,” Sadie offered.
“Yeah, that,” Marjorie said quickly. “So, if he is one, what does that mean? What should I do?”
Tanya and Sadie looked at each other. “We’re not sure what you should do, because we never came across someone like Matt before,” Tanya said, turning back to Marjorie. “But one recommendation would be to put him in a deaf school rather than a school for the hearing, because he would be better off with kids who are just like him. We know that the only deaf public school in the city is across the turnpike, in High Falls, but you can fill out an application claiming extenuating circumstances. You can attach statements from us with the application.”
Marjorie nodded politely. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”
Sadie cleared her throat. “There is something else. Obviously, I know we’re not supposed to go into this topic, because that’s between you and the audiologist. But I must admit that I was surprised when I first found out that you’re not deaf yourself. That’s generally true for parents who decline to give their child a cochlear implant. I’m sure you’ve heard from the audiologist that age is a critical factor for –”
“Yes, I’m aware of all that,” Marjorie snapped. The glow on her face had become a glower. She was angry, but not at them.
Tanya quickly moved in to dissipate the tension. “Anyway, we have high confidence that Matt will excel in a school for the deaf, and we’ll do everything we can to help him get into a good one.”
Marjorie nodded quickly, eager to move on as well. “Thank you for your observations. I’ll consider it.”
The lessons continued as usual, the boy wonder in the bedroom, Marjorie stumbling over her signing in the living room. When the teachers finally left, Marjorie sat on the couch, deep in thought. She walked over to the dresser, opened a drawer, and rummaged around until her fingers felt the envelope. It had been a long time since she last read the document inside. Her brow furrowed as she looked over it. Then she grabbed her phone and called the number that had appeared on her display many times over the months. Missed call after missed call. It was time to finally call back.
“Greetings, my child,” the familiar voice said.
Marjorie, not in the mood for pleasantries, dived right in. “Sibyl, I need to understand why you’ve set up the trust this way.”
“Ah, my dear. I believe he should be educated in the best institution for deaf learning in your area, and that cost should be no object –“
“No, not that part. The other part,” Marjorie said. She scanned the bizarre language. Marjorie Kane shall receive a check for one million dollars when Matthew Kane, her son, attains the age of five, but only in the event that he remains legally deaf and has not undergone any medical operation or procedure for the installation of a cochlear implant.
Her eyes moved to the next section, the last one. Marjorie Kane shall receive an additional check for one million dollars when Matthew Kane, her son, attains the age of ten, but only in the event that he remains legally deaf and has not undergone any medical operation or procedure for the installation of a cochlear implant.
“Why don’t you want him to get a cochlear implant?” Marjorie asked.
“Because he is fine the way he is,” Sibyl answered.
The anger was rising again in Marjorie. “You’re playing with my son’s life. The audiologist told me that brain’s development in processing hearing can only fully happen at a very young age. If I wait until he’s older, the opportunity is lost. Permanently.”
Marjorie thought back to the conversation with the audiologist. Of the children who are implanted at age two, almost half develop spoken language equivalent to that of hearing children their age. Among the children implanted at the age of four, that proportion plummets to sixteen percent. Matt was turning four very soon. There was a window of opportunity, and it was closing for him.
Sibyl sounded unperturbed. “My child, that may be true for other children, but it is not true for Matt. Nothing would hold back his development more than a cochlear implant at this age. He can have an implant, my dear, but later. Not now.”
“You’re not making any sense!” Marjorie said. “I have heard from a licensed medical professional that he will fall behind if he doesn’t get the implant now! The more time that passes, the worse it’ll get!”
“Do not let yourself be troubled, my child,” Sibyl said. “Your son needs the silence in order for his gift to fully manifest. His deafness will not make him weaker. It will make him stronger.”
“You are sick. This is financial blackmail. You’re playing with my son’s life, and you’re taking advantage of my financial situation for your sick games. Go to hell,” Marjorie said, then hung up. After a few seconds, the phone buzzed. She ignored it. The buzzing stopped, then started again. She put the phone on silent.
In the preceding months, Marjorie had thought about getting the implant for Matt. But each time, she remembered what the audiologist said about delayed implantation. And then she remembered that she could have insisted on a hearing test for Matt much sooner, shortly after seeing the document for Sibyl’s trust, when Matt was just a year old. And she simply did not want to think about that, about what she should have done. She had been trapped in a sort of limbo. Doing something would have been the painful acknowledgment that she should have done something before, but failed. And that was intolerable to contemplate. So she pushed it all away, even as she knew that she could not keep it at bay forever.
She had to be a good mother now. She had screwed up before, but there was still time to make things right. She picked up her phone and called the audiologist.
There were several rings, then a robotic voice, “You have reached the voicemail of Doctor…”
After the beep, she spoke quickly, as if she were afraid that she might change her mind any second. “Hi, this is Marjorie Kane. I would like to schedule an appointment to find out the process of getting a cochlear implant for my son Matt. Thank you.” After hanging up, she breathed deeply. There. It was done. Her son’s well-being was more important than anything else, Sibyl and her millions be damned.
Marjorie’s body felt stiff. She had been hunched over for a while. She got up from the couch, paced around a little bit in the cramped space. The day had left her feeling high-strung. She needed something to help her unwind. She walked over to the bedroom, scooped up Matt, left the trailer, and rang the doorbell of the trailer next door.
A woman with curly auburn hair and an oven mitt on her right hand opened the door. “Hi Marge, what’s up?” she asked.
“Hi Amelia,” Marjorie said. “Something’s come up, something urgent. Would you mind watching Matt?”
“Sure. I’m cooking, but I can sit him down at the kitchen table. Do you have one of those books he really likes? He’s always super quiet and settled down when he has that.”
“Absolutely, I’ll bring a book over right now. Thanks!”
Fifteen minutes later and five miles elsewhere, Marjorie walked into Level Up, the local pub. It had not changed. Neon lights outside the window, the acrid smell of cigarette smoke, a few pool tables lined up across from a long row of bar stools on the other side, about a third of them occupied.
The bartender, a big burly man chomping a fat cigar, squinted at her. “You look familiar,” the bartender said. “Didn’t you used to come here regularly with a bloke, years ago?”
“Yes,” she said. She felt slightly flattered that he remembered her after all this time. “That bloke was my husband, now ex-husband.”
“Ah, I see, sorry to hear that,” he said, with the resigned tone of someone who has heard every sad tale known to man. “What’ll I get you? Wait, I know. Bloody Mary, right?”
She nodded, even more impressed. The last time she was here, Matt had not even been conceived. As she gulped the drink, she felt proud of herself. So many things had gone sideways in her life, but now she was finally exerting control, going her own way. Not dependent on anyone, including Sibyl.
During the weekend in Sibyl’s mansion, Marjorie had seen her parents only once, during the funeral services for Sibyl’s deceased brother. They ignored her, and she ignored them. When she walked out afterwards, she felt relieved. Any interaction would have created more problems than it solved. She had given up everything for the man who disappeared on her. Although the man was long gone, the damage he left behind would long remain, irreversible.
Marjorie glanced around, noticed that she was being eyed by almost everyone in the bar. Interesting… Before, she had always come here with Matt’s father. Men would notice her, then see that she was coupled, and then proceed to ignore her. Not anymore, now that she was alone.
“Hi there. Waiting for someone?”
She turned and saw the chiseled features, strong jawline, musculature that subtly rippled underneath a pressed collared shirt.
“Um, no,” she said. “Just having a little time to myself.”
The man smiled. “Buy you a drink?”
She sipped the new drink, courtesy of Mr. Jawline, and they talked. How long had it been since she dated someone? Too long. She was still young. The fat that she had accumulated during pregnancy was in its last throes. She could be hot again.
“Do you come here often?” the man asked, after buying her a second drink.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “I actually came here to celebrate a little bit.” Wait, not second drink. She’d had one before he approached her. This was her third.
The man smiled. “What’s the special occasion?”
“I’m going to get my son a cochlear implant, so he can hear.”
The man’s face froze in mid-smile. He stared blankly at her. “Ummm…,” he squinted hard, as if racking his brain to find the right words to say. “You, um, have a kid?”
“Yup,” she replied jovially.
“And… he’s currently deaf?”
“Yeah,” she said, this time more hesitantly. “But not for long. I’m getting him a cochlear implant.” Oh, god. She was just now realizing how unromantic she was sounding.
“Ah, I see. That’s… good,” the man said. “Happy to hear that.” He nodded absentmindedly, glanced furtively at her drink. He was no longer making eye contact with her. “Very happy to hear that.” He took a deep breath, then got up. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he announced, then walked away.
An older man, who had been a couple of stools down, got up and sauntered over. “How are you doing, Marjorie?”
She frowned. “How do you know my name?”
He smirked. “I heard you say it to that younger man who just left, and who’s not coming back. It seems to me that you haven’t been in the dating game for a while.” He gave off the scent of cheap aftershave, and his suit jacket was too big for him. He extended his hand. “I’m Leroy.”
Marjorie’s hand stayed wrapped around her drink. “What can I do for you?”
“Just wanted to tell you that I can take you out, show you a good time.” He smiled, revealing crooked teeth, most of which were stained and one of which had a visible crack.
Marjorie raised her eyebrows. She had gone from Mr. Handsome to Mr. Hideous in just a few short moments. Was this the inevitable fate of a single mother in the dating scene?
“Oh, I know I don’t have much going for me in the looks department,” Leroy said, as if he could read her mind. He lowered his voice. “But there’s something else I can offer.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a shiny silver business card holder. He cracked it open narrowly, inches from her face, so that only she could see what was inside. White pills.
Pills? “Are those drugs or something?” Marjorie asked.
“Shhh…” Leroy cautioned. He snapped the holder shut. “This is just a sample, for display purposes. I have many quality products to offer, but they’re elsewhere, not here. Everything I have is one hundred percent authentic, exactly what I say it is. No surprises like you’ll get with other vendors.”
Marjorie got up. She was done.
“I’m just saying that I can make you have a good time. Guaranteed,” Leroy said.
“Goodbye,” Marjorie said as she walked out the door of Level Up.
Behind her, she heard Leroy exclaim, “Are you sure you can drive? You’re slurring your speech. You’ve had three drinks, all of them with hard liquor.”
So he had been watching her the whole time. The creep.
She walked faster to her car. It took her a few tries to slide her key into the lock. She settled into the driver’s seat, started the engine. Glanced over at the clock displayed on the dashboard. Holy cow. Two hours had passed? She needed to get home, get Matt. As she backed the car out of the parking spot, she thought back to the idiot she had wasted her time on, the one who was interested until she mentioned Matt. Screw him. Anger coursed through her, and she slammed on the accelerator with her foot. There was a screeching sound as she veered off, the tires leaving skid marks in the pavement in the parking lot.
Little did she know that her destination would not be her trailer park home. Rather, it would be another zone altogether: ground zero of the opioid crisis
In the next episode, Marjorie takes opioids for the first time. It won’t be the last time. Join us next time on the American Opioid podcast.
Welcome to episode 4 of American Opioid. If you just started listening to the podcast, you’ll want to start with episode 1. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org
Marjorie walked to her car. It took her a few tries to slide her key into the lock. She settled into the driver’s seat, started the engine. Glanced over at the clock displayed on the dashboard. Holy cow. Two hours had passed? She needed to get home, get Matt. As she backed the car out of the parking spot, she thought back to the idiot she had wasted her time on, the one who was interested until she mentioned Matt. Screw him. Anger coursed through her, and she slammed on the accelerator with her foot. There was a screeching sound as she veered off, the tires leaving skid marks in the pavement in the parking lot.
She was fine. The alcohol had done nothing to impair her. Besides, home was just five short miles away, even if it was hard to tell one light apart from another. Were her headlights on? Why were there suddenly more lanes than usual? Odd.
The lights were so bright. They were asking her questions, but she was not answering them. Instead, she just listened passively. She tried to look around, but was unable to move her neck for some reason. The bright lights… These were not headlights, or street lights. They were fluorescent lights. She was in a room, lying on a bed, and a man in a white coat was asking her questions.
“What do you remember about the accident?”
“Accident?” Marjorie replied. “What accident?” She was driving. Or at least, she had been driving. What was she doing here? It was hard for her to concentrate.
The man furrowed his brow. “It’s common for patients to have no recollection of the accident. You were unconscious when the paramedics found you.”
“Unconscious? Paramedics? Wait, I don’t understand. Where am I?”
He blinked. “You’re fully coherent now. That’s good. Ok, let’s start from the beginning.”
Just then, a nurse walked in with a cordless phone. “Your neighbor, Amelia. She wants to talk to you. She says your son is with her.”
“Matt?” Suddenly, it came flooding back. She had left Matt with Amelia, was driving back from Level Up to get him… and was now here. She tried to dig into her memory, to draw out what had happened in between, but there was only a blank.
Marjorie raised her hand to take the phone, and saw the thin tube protruding from the inside of her elbow. She followed the tube with her eyes and saw that it was attached to a clear plastic bag of clear fluid that was hanging from a rack. An IV. She was on an IV. In a hospital.
Her hand closed around the phone, and she raised it to her ear. The bottom of the phone brushed against a rigid material that was wrapped around her neck. “Hello?” she said.
“Marjorie! Are you all right?” Amelia asked.
“Ummm… I guess. I’m trying to understand what’s going on. What day is it?”
“What day? You dropped off Matt at my place the day before yesterday. So, about a day and a half.”
Marjorie frowned. “How did you know to reach me here?”
The nurse chipped in, “You told us Amelia’s name and contact info.”
Marjorie stared. “I did?”
On the phone, Amelia said, “They called me and told me where you were. Don’t worry about Matt. I just picked him up from City Day Nursery. Last night, I came to your hospital room with him. You were asleep, but seeing you helped him feel less anxious. He kept grunting and making a bunch of signs with his hands. It was so cute to watch. We’ll come again tonight.”
“Ok, thanks. Bye,” Marjorie hung up. She was feeling drowsy.
The doctor explained that she did not appear to have any broken bones, but that she was heavily bruised, and that she had suffered whiplash, which explained the neck brace. “Some of the tendons and ligaments in your neck were heavily stressed, to the point of tearing, so it’ll take some time to recover. All in all, it could have been much worse. You should consider yourself very lucky.”
After he left, she drifted back into sleep. A few hours later, someone came and checked her IV, waking her. After the person walked out, she tried to sit up, then gasped. A wave of intense pain shot through the back of her neck and her shoulders. She feverishly groped around for the Call button. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted it, but it was just out of reach of her fingertips. She wriggled toward it, and another jolt of pain made her cry out. She shut her eyes tightly, and her lashes became moist with tears.
Marjorie pushed the button, then waited. A couple of minutes passed by. Nothing. The pain was omnipresent, a low simmer that was scorching her. Her movements seemed to have awakened it. She started pressing the button again and again, breathing shallowly through clenched teeth.
Finally, a male nurse walked in. “Everything ok? What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
“The… pain. Can’t take it. Too much pain,” she croaked out.
The nurse took in her contorted face, the tears freely running down each side of it into the cloth of the pillow cover. He checked the whiteboard across from her bed, where a bunch of medical jargon had been scrawled. “Yeah, looks like the morphine wore off a little while ago. I’ll get you another dose.” He headed out of the room.
After an agonizing wait, he returned with a small clear cylindrical container, onto which various labels had been affixed. He fiddled with the tube sticking out of her arm, while she looked away. She hated seeing stuff being injected into her.
“Ok, done,” he finally said. “In less than ten minutes, you’ll start to feel warm. And then shortly after that, you’ll feel high.” He chuckled. “Anything else you need?”
“Ummm… my neighbor said she was going to visit, with my son.”
“Oh yeah, they were here briefly. But you were asleep again. Don’t worry, rest up. The faster you recover, the sooner you’ll be able to get back home.”
At first, they had Marjorie on a liquid diet to make sure she could keep something down without it coming back up. Then they moved her to solids, and she was happy to see that her appetite was returning. But she was not so happy when they cut off the morphine.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” she murmured.
The nurse handed her a pill. “This is a Percocet. It will help with the pain. We can’t keep patients on pure morphine for too long, because they’ll develop a dependence.”
The pill was not as good as the IV injection, but it kept the pain at bay enough that she could fall asleep. The next day, she was well rested when Amelia came in, holding Matt.
“You’re awake!” Amelia exclaimed. She gingerly embraced Marjorie with one arm, being careful not to jostle anything, then let Matt slip down from her other arm onto the bed, on Marjorie’s right side.
Matt eagerly signed to Marjorie. Mommy! Mommy! Amelia gave me ice cream! Chocolate.
That same day, Marjorie was discharged. She signed the papers, thanked the staff, and clutched the container of precious Percocets in her hand as she walked slowly to Amelia’s car.
As she entered the door of her trailer park home, she glanced at the mailbox, which was full. Amelia grabbed the bundle and set it down on the kitchen table inside. Matt immediately went to one of Sibyl’s books, and opened it. Those books were a better babysitter than anything else.
“Holler if you need anything, hon,” Amelia said as she headed out.
“Sure thing. Thanks, Amelia,” Marjorie replied. She sat down and started organizing the envelopes.
The two letters from the car insurance company were easily the most important. Her car had been totaled beyond repair, but that was okay because she was covered. The first letter from the company said her claim was processing. She opened the second letter, and her heart sank.
Just then, the doorbell rang. A police officer stood on the porch.
“Marjorie Kane?” the officer asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“These items were recovered from your vehicle,” the officer said, handing her a large plastic Zip Lock bag.
“Ok, thanks,” she said. She closed the door, went back to the kitchen table, and set the plastic bag down to the side. She picked up the letter again, and shook her head. Her car had crashed into a tree, so no one else was hurt. Thank God. She read further, scowling as she tried to decipher the labyrinthine language. Her blood alcohol level had been found to be above the legal limit. As a result, the company was refusing to cover anything.
The plastic bag buzzed, making Marjorie jump. A searing pain shot through her neck and shoulders, and she gasped. She cursed and opened the bag, fished out her cell phone, and answered it.
“Hello, Ms. Kane. I’m calling to set up an appointment with your son’s audiologist, to discuss a cochlear implant.”
Marjorie glanced at the paper from the insurance company. “Ummm . . . I’m actually somewhat busy at the moment. I was just in a car accident.”
“Oh! Sorry to hear that. All you all right?”
“I’m back home from the hospital, but still recovering.”
“Okay. Well, when you get better, feel free to give us a call.”
Marjorie glanced at her phone. How did the battery last this long? She checked the settings. 7% remaining. Made sense. That was how she felt too. She tapped Matt, who remained fixated on the book he held in his hands. She led him to the bedroom, his hands still holding the book. Plopped him down on the mattress, lay down next to him. As her head settled back on the pillow, another wave of pain hit. Her neck felt like chunks of it were being torn out piece by piece. She slowed her breathing, waited for the pain to subside. But this time, it did not. The dull throbbing made it impossible to fall asleep.
Marjorie used her hands to hold her head steady, then gingerly got up. Trudged to the kitchen, popped a pill into her mouth. Turned on the tap, washed the pill down with a handful of water. Back in the bedroom, she watched Matt turn a page, his brow furrowed in deep concentration. She had flipped through the books several times. The colors were easily distinguishable in the initial volumes. The differences became subtler as the volumes progressed, and toward the end, they all looked the same to her.
With the bedroom door open, she could see the kitchen, the living room. Her home was just one room, with thin walls dividing it into sub-rooms. She chose to live here because she wanted to save up for something better. But the car insurance situation was the latest in a string of impediments that seemed to move her two steps backward after each step forward.
After what seemed like an eternity, the pain lessened, and with the relief came a dreamy euphoria, a warm and fuzzy feeling that bore a striking similarity to what she had felt when she was still nursing Matt. It was time to go to sleep, this time for real.
The following month, she arrived at the hospital pharmacy at nine o’clock sharp, just as it opened. They gave her a refill of the pain medication, and she left. Exactly one month later, she arrived again at nine o’clock sharp for her refill.
The pharmacist frowned when he looked her up her patient record. “Says here that you were supposed to have a follow-up appointment with the doctor who saw you during your ER visit. What happened?”
“Oh, something came up. I’ll need to reschedule that.”
“Okay, make sure you do. You won’t get another refill after this one unless the doctor fills out another prescription.”
As soon as she stepped out of the clinic, Marjorie took out her phone and scheduled the appointment.
In the next episode of American Opioid, Marjorie finds herself in the grip of something she does not understand, but its impact on her behavior is all too real.
Welcome to Episode 5 of the first season of the American Opioid podcast. If you just started listening, you’ll want to go back and start with Episode 1. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org .
The following week, the doctor asked, “How are you feeling right now?”
“I can move around more, but I still need the medication,” she replied.
The doctor removed her neck brace, then had a scan done. “It looks like everything has more or less healed,” he said, looking over the results. With his fingers, he lightly pressed down on different parts of her neck and shoulders.
After a few seconds, she inhaled sharply. “Ow, that hurts.”
He stopped, looked puzzled. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Do you need to work?”
“Yes, and the medication has made that possible.”
“Okay. I’ll write you another prescription. The neck brace will stay off, though, because otherwise your neck muscles will atrophy.”
Marjorie arrived at the hospital pharmacy at nine o’clock sharp, clutching her brand-new prescription triumphantly. In the days that followed, she found herself absentmindedly searching online for more clinics in South End. That weekend, she entered the doors of one such establishment. The doctor told her to use heating pads and avoid craning her neck. She stalked out, muttering under her breath.
An hour later, she entered another clinic. As she waited for her name to be called, she sensed that this place was different. The vibe was off, even by medical waiting room standards. People shifted restlessly, averted their gaze. It was as if they did not want to be seen by anyone they knew.
The doctor wrote her a prescription within five minutes. She drove directly to a pharmacy that she had also looked up, in a seedy part of town. Minutes later, she walked out with the small container in her hand, shaking her head in disbelief at how easy it was. She got in her car and drove to a third clinic.
When Marjorie arrived back home, she saw a fair-haired, round-faced boy on his porch, across the trailer park. She walked over. “How are you doing, Bennie? Where’s your mom?”
Bennie was in the same spot so often that the residents called him the trailer park lookout. He was up in everybody’s business, simply because very little escaped his attention.
“I’m not talking to my mom,” he replied, gazing up at her from his wheelchair.
“She takes stuff from me, stuff I need,” Bennie said.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. What do you need?”
His expression hardened. “She said I’m not supposed to tell anyone. She says she’s borrowing it. But she never gives it back. I hate her.”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll all be worked out soon,” Marjorie said. She turned around to go, then stopped and turned her neck more than ninety degrees as she looked back over her shoulder. Smoothly, without a trace of discomfort. “Your mom is in the house right now?”
“Yeah. But I’m not going back in. She has to come here.”
“Okay, take care Bennie,” Marjorie said, then walked back to her own trailer. Bennie was adorable, but he always had problems with his mother.
At home, Marjorie got out her phone, started searching for more clinics just in case she had missed any. Then froze. The advertisements appearing alongside the search results . . .
“What is going on?” she whispered. She quickly closed it, then decided to log onto social media. She scrolled through the recent postings of various acquaintances. A baby, a beach vacation, a graduation . . . Then she froze again. An advertisement, like the ones she saw moments ago. She went to a random news site, scrolled through, and sure enough, the exact same advertisement. They were following her wherever she went.
Do you need help? Our rehab clinics can be your road to recovery!
“Fuck you,” she said, then threw the phone across the room. It clattered on the kitchen floor. She reached into her purse, and took out half a dozen containers of pills. The sight of them made her feel calmer. She ingested a pill, then carefully stowed the rest in a cupboard far out of Matt’s reach. She would need to pick him up soon.
Before heading out, she looked down at the neat row of Sibyl’s books. The one Matt was currently reading was opened on the floor, and he was almost finished with it. On a whim, she picked up the next book in the series and stowed it in the cupboard. The colors looked the same to her, and she wanted to find out if he could tell there was a gap.
The next day, she watched intently as he reached the end of his current book, then went back to the beginning. The following weekend, he finished his run-through of all the books he had completed thus far, and then went on to the next book that was not actually the next book. She waited, holding her breath, as he turned to the first page. No reaction. Business as usual.
She relaxed. The books were a diversion, nothing more. The next day, she took Matt to the park. She knew his antics on the playground. He would avoid the swing sets, the slides, basically everything that made it a playground. Instead, he would get down on his knees and smooth out the sand in front of him. Then, with the pinky finger of his left hand, he would start tracing random lines that crisscrossed with each other. He would sometimes dribble saliva onto his finger from his mouth before tracing a line, so that some parts of the sand appeared darker than others. He would trace so many lines, and would intersect them so many times, that by the end it was difficult to tell them apart from each other, even with the differences in shading enabled by his saliva. Then he would jump up and down in excitement, pointing at the mess and looking at Marjorie eagerly, as if he had discovered something new.
But this time, Matt was more aware of what was happening around him. A toddler was tossing a small orange ball around. He would throw it, then pick it up, only to throw it again, as if he were playing fetch with himself. Matt stared at the toddler, whose mother was nearby. At one point, the toddler appeared to lose his grip on the ball right before he intended to throw it, and it sailed behind him and rolled behind a slide. The toddler, befuddled, looked everywhere around him and then started to wail. The toddler’s mother went to the slide and kicked the ball so it was visible again. The toddler, upon seeing the ball, scampered toward it and cradled it in his arms as if it were a small stuffed animal.
Matt pointed at the toddler’s mother, looked back at Marjorie, and said, “She diddin hided it.”
Marjorie gaped at him from the park bench. These were the first words she had ever heard him speak.
“You hided it. She diddin hided it,” Matt said. His other hand was up at his neck, three fingers pressed lightly against his throat. “You are bad. I want her to be Mommy. You are wery bad Mommy.”
Marjorie scrambled over to Matt, scooped him up, and started carrying him away, back to the car. He continued speaking into her ear, in a disturbingly even tone of voice, “Bad Mommy. Bad bad bad bad.”
That night, he refused to fall asleep next to her in the bedroom. Instead, he got up and wandered around, lifting the couch cushions, rummaging in the closet. Trying to find it. What she had hided.
The next day, Marjorie called Tanya, Matt’s former signing instructor.
“He spoke?” Tanya asked.
“Yes, he did,” Marjorie said. “At the playground. For the first time ever.”
“What did he say?”
Yikes. “Ummm . . . Mommy, and some other stuff that was hard to make out.”
“Awww . . . that’s so cute.”
Marjorie remembered why she called. “So, how is that possible? How can a deaf child even understand spoken English, let alone speak it?”
“He must be reading lips. Many deaf children resort to that when they don’t have a lot of access to people who can sign. It’s a survival mechanism.”
“Interesting,” Marjorie said. “Does that mean he could actually function in a non-deaf school?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Tanya said. “The outcomes are not good. Deaf children who go to schools where instruction is solely oral will read at only a fourth-grade level when they turn eighteen. On the other hand, deaf children who go to schools where they are taught in Sign, and then learn English as a second language, will usually read at grade level when they turn eighteen.” Her recitation had the labored tone of someone who had repeated those statistics many times to parents over the years, parents who wanted to hear something different.
“Your son would do far better in a deaf school,” Tanya continued, “which is why you’ll want to fill out that application to enroll him in the school in High Falls, the one with a dedicated Deaf track. The deadline is coming up soon.”
“Okay, I’ll keep that in mind,” Marjorie said. “Just to let you know, I’m planning to get a cochlear implant for Matt. Some circumstances came up that delayed me, but I’ll have a consult with the audiologist soon.”
“Oh, okay. For cochlear implants, the sooner, the better.”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” Marjorie said, annoyed.
The next call Marjorie made was to the audiologist’s office. She spoke to the secretary and locked down an appointment. There. It was done.
Later that day, when Marjorie picked up Matt from City Day Nursery and came home, the missing volume was on the floor. Marjorie, who had put it there, watched as Matt eyed it suspiciously. He moved toward it slowly, as if any sudden movement on his part might make it disappear again. He opened it to the first page. After a moment, a broad grin spread across his face.
At bedtime, Matt refused to sleep in the bedroom again. Instead, he lay down on the floor of the living room, both arms wrapped around the book. She pleaded with him in Sign, but he refused to budge. When she tried to pick him up and carry him to the bedroom, book included, he yowled and bit her arm, hard enough to leave an imprint. The medication was making her sleepy, and she retired for the night.
Perhaps an hour later, she sensed a warm body on the mattress next to her. Turning on her phone light, she saw that it was Matt, with his arms still wrapped tightly around the book.
Light off, he signed with his hands, then folded them back over the book.
You want to sleep here? What made you change your mind? Marjorie signed.
Because monsters, he signed back. Marjorie smiled. At the end of the day, he was still just a four-year-old. Marjorie turned off her phone light, and he snuggled up against her. She stroked his hair, and marveled at how the little runt could give her so much pain and so much happiness at the same time.
Then disaster. Marjorie arrived at a pharmacy that Saturday, with one of her prescriptions. The pharmacist entered the information into the system, then shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” the pharmacist said. “According to this, you’ve already had a prescription filled for this medication, which was written by a different doctor.”
Marjorie gulped. “I don’t understand. Everything went through last time.”
“There’s a new state law that just went into effect this week. We had to implement a database that tracks prescriptions for opioid medications to prevent abuse and fraud. They passed the law after an investigation found that at least six counties in the state had more opioid prescriptions filled than people who actually lived in those counties. Including this county, in fact.”
Marjorie felt a tinge of panic. She needed to get out of there. “Ummm . . . Okay, I’ll go back to the doctor and check. Thanks.”
As she hurried out, the pharmacist called after her, “Hey miss, if you think you need some help, there are some resources we can refer you to–”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. It’s just a mix-up, nothing more.”
The same thing happened at the next pharmacy. And the next. They were now all connected to that goddamned database. On Sunday, she drove more than sixty miles until she crossed the border into the neighboring state, then found a pharmacy. She waited with baited breath as the pharmacist put in the information. After studying the screen, he headed around to the back, whispered to someone else. She watched, the adrenaline coursing through her, ready to bolt at any moment. The pharmacist came back to her.
“Okay, the co-pay is . . .“ he said, ringing it up.
It worked! She clutched the small bag happily, then headed to another pharmacy with the next prescription. Only to be crushed.
“So, it says here that you’ve already had a prescription filled for this, which was written by a different doctor — “
“I actually just recently switched doctors, let me go check with them and sort it out. Thanks!”
As she drove back to her hometown, Ragle, Marjorie started to cry. Took a pill, and the tears stopped. She could stress out later. Right now, she wanted to smile and daydream on this lovely ride through the interstate, with the enormous trees whizzing by.
Back in Ragle, she dropped by Level Up before heading home. Walked inside, her eyes darting feverishly across each person there.
“What’ll I get you?” the bartender asked. “The usual?”
“I’m actually looking for someone, an older gentleman. His name is Leroy. Do you know when he usually swings by here?” Marjorie said.
The bartender blinked. “Leroy, the drug dealer? Weeknights, usually.” He studied her appearance, frowned. “Lady, you don’t seem like the kind of person who’d want to be one of his customers. You should get yourself some help while you still have a chance.”
“Go screw yourself,” she said, and marched out. The bartender’s laugh of surprise echoed behind her.
Later that week, Marjorie sat in her trailer, brooding over her dwindling supply. She was terrified of what would happen when she ran out. She would not be well, and she wanted to stay well. The physical cravings would gnaw at her, the excruciating pain that would last for days, which only the pills could alleviate.
Her phone buzzed. “Hello, Ms. Kane. Looks like you missed your appointment with the audiologist, regarding your son’s cochlear implant. Would you like to reschedule –”
“No, not at this time. Too much stuff going on,” Marjorie replied. “I’ll get back to you. Bye.”
After an hour or so, the doorbell rang. She sighed, then got up and answered it. “Marjorie Kane?” the delivery man asked.
She signed, then watched him lug in a large box. The dimensions were all too familiar. She already knew who it was from, what she would find inside. Sure enough, a row of books. That old woman and her strange ways.
That old woman . . . Marjorie suddenly felt unease, and not because of Sibyl. She worried about getting fired.
In the next episode, Marjorie becomes increasingly aware of the fact that her dependence on opioids could jeopardize her job.
Welcome to Episode 6 of the first season of American Opioid. If you just started listening to the podcast, you’ll want to go back and start with Episode 1. More information is available at www.americanopioid.org.
The next morning, after she dropped Matt off at City Day Nursery, Marjorie drove to her workplace in High Falls, the polar opposite of where she lived in South End. The attendant at the entrance to the gated community recognized her and waved her through. She passed by the spotless sidewalks and neatly manicured lawns until she pulled into the long driveway of her employers. A large, stately edifice, with neo-Gothic architecture.
A slim, blonde woman greeted her at the door. “Hi Marjorie. Arthur’s finishing up breakfast. It was such a struggle getting him out of bed this morning.”
Everything involving Arthur was a struggle, Marjorie thought to herself. She stepped through the gargantuan space, across the living room that was triple the size of her entire trailer, and into the dining room where panoramic windows revealed an acre of leafy backyard.
“Hello Arthur,” Marjorie said to a toddler sitting at the solid oak dining table. Arthur babbled incoherently in reply. Marjorie set her things down and prepared to encourage him to finish, as she did every weekday morning.
“I’m heading out,” the blonde woman called from the living room. “Agatha should be up in an hour or so. Text me if you can’t find her dentures again, or if Arthur starts acting screwy.”
“Sure thing. Bye, Sheryl,” Marjorie said. She moved a chair next to Arthur’s, then coaxed him to take in another mouthful of cereal. “Look, it’s so yummy,” she said in a baby voice. “Sooo yummy, you know you want it. Yum yum yum.”
Marjorie drove all the way to High Falls to do this because the pay blew everything else out of the water, and because she liked having a consistent nine-to-six job. There were so many others she knew who regularly had to scramble for a shift change with only twenty-four hours’ notice. Lots of companies now rearranged shifts based on algorithms designed to maximize profits at the expense of workers’ sanity. She could also avoid the other shenanigans: the yelling, the put-downs, the way a supervisor had leered at her whenever he thought she was looking the other way. At least here it was clean and safe. Not to mention quiet and stress-free. And she was treated like a human being. After her car accident, Sheryl gave her plenty of time to recover before returning. A different employer would have probably fired her after a week.
Marjorie had thought about applying for a childcare provider license and hanging her own shingle. That would allow her to babysit several children simultaneously, multiplying her sole stream of income. She would not have to commute. Parents would come to her to drop off and pick up their children, and Matt could be there with her too. But she knew that no parent in High Falls would drive down to South End and deposit their kid into a trailer park for an hour, let alone a day. Her dream was to save up just enough to get herself a nice little place not too far from here, perhaps a condo or townhouse. The worst part of High Falls was still a heckuva lot better than almost anywhere in South End. Or at least, that was the perception. And in High Falls, perception was everything.
In the meantime, she would continue to drop Matt off in the cheapest day care center in the city and then drive off to raise someone else’s kid. The economic turnaround was raising property prices to stratospheric levels. That was why Marjorie was so angry at Sibyl. The million-dollar payout in the trust would bring her dream within striking distance, but at the expense of Matt’s potential. The words of the audiologist echoed in Marjorie’s mind. The absence of sound will permanently compromise the neural architecture of the auditory cortex, because small children have a critical, closing window of development. If Matt had received the cochlear implant years earlier, his sound processing ability would not have been stunted. And now, the old woman was trying to force Marjorie to damage him even more. Sibyl knew she was struggling financially, and was deliberately blackmailing her. Sick . . .
Just then, a wizened old crone trudged into the room, her hands grasping the rolling walker she was hunched over. Marjorie got up.
“Agatha,” she scolded gently. “You shouldn’t do that without me helping you.”
“Lovely to see you, Marjorie,” Agatha replied. She cracked a smile, all gums. Marjorie would have to look for her dentures.
Each day, Marjorie had three jobs: babysit Arthur, make sure Agatha was still alive, and perform household chores like cooking and cleaning. Marjorie settled Arthur down in front of the television and began streaming the cartoon with the talking gerbil. Then she sat Agatha down for breakfast and went off to find her dentures. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw them in plain sight, on the dresser in Agatha’s room. Last time, she had to search for nearly an hour before finding them tucked away on the carpet, next to the phone charger. Agatha’s room was the guest room downstairs because of her limited mobility. Marjorie handed Agatha the plastic case with the dentures inside, then prepared a bowl of oatmeal.
Agatha beamed at Marjorie. “Found a new husband yet?” she asked. She always started the conversation that way.
“Still working on it, Agatha. A good man is hard to find.”
“I still talk to my husband every day,” Agatha said proudly.
“That’s good,” Marjorie murmured. Agatha’s husband had been dead for half a decade.
The cartoon Arthur was watching went to a brief commercial. On screen was a cute little robot that gyrated while chatting amiably with a toddler. “Bringing you the latest in artificial intelligence. The more Robby talks with your child, the more he learns and the smarter he gets!” a voiceover announced. The cartoon returned to resolve the cliffhanger that had been there before the break. The gerbil had been caught by a cat, but now, instead of being eaten, appeared to be befriending it.
Marjorie had once put that same cartoon on at home, just for kicks. She had noticed that the commercials were different, hawking products that were far less expensive. Marjorie smiled at the thought. They marketed low end junk to a precocious boy in South End, while they trumpeted fancier fare to the spoiled dumbass gaping up at the screen here in High Falls.
Marjorie took out her phone. The advertisements for rehab facilities were not as noticeable, and were mixed with generic copy. As she scrolled, she noticed that not a single place of business on the screen was based in High Falls. All were in South End. Before, there had been a fairly even split between the two. They had realized that she would never shop in High Falls. Their targeting was becoming sharper and smarter over time.
As Agatha ate and Arthur watched, Marjorie stole upstairs and opened the dresser drawer that contained all of Agatha’s particulars. Bottles of various pills: one for diabetes, another for cholesterol, yet another for high blood pressure. She ignored those and picked up the only bottle that mattered. Vicodin. The date on the bottle placed it right around Agatha’s hip replacement surgery. Agatha had only taken about a third of them, and Marjorie had helped herself to the remainder. She unscrewed the cap, popped a pill into her mouth. She no longer needed water to swallow them.
The very first Vicodin had been sublime, although it had made her very sleepy. Thank goodness she had tried it at home. But now, she could pop a pill right at work, and could keep herself awake with coffee. The pills were having less of an effect than they used to. And she was running out. She held the bottle up, glimpsed the handful of pills remaining, and felt a twinge of panic.
After putting the Vicodin bottle back, Marjorie took out a plastic bag filled with small, identical packets. She had seen the packets many times before when she prepared Agatha’s pills at the beginning of each week, but was only seriously examining them now. She took out a packet, studied the text on the front: FENTANYL TRANSDERMAL PATCH.
When she had asked about the packets, Sheryl had said, “Don’t worry about them. The doctor prescribed them when Agatha dislocated a disc in her spine, but she’s rarely used them since surgery. We keep them there just in case.”
Agatha, within earshot, had said, “I don’t like those things. They make my brain foggy.” She had then resumed her conversation with her deceased husband, merrily speaking into thin air.
Marjorie turned the packet over. WARNING: Use only as directed by a medical professional. Do not use with alcohol. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. She slipped the packet into her pocket, then put the bag back into the drawer.
At home in her trailer, with Matt buried in one of Sibyl’s books in the living room, Marjorie sat on the mattress in her bedroom with the door slightly ajar. She leaned back against the wall, which the mattress was pushed up against. Her gut tightened with a combination of excitement and dread. She tore the packet, pulled out the patch, unsealed it, then pressed it tightly against her skin. For a long time, nothing. Then, at last, a feeling of warmth at the site of contact, expanding outward. Then relaxation, the dreamy euphoria unrivaled by anything other than the hospital morphine. She giggled with pleasure. She kept the patch pressed against herself. “Lovely,” she whispered. “Lovely, lovely, lovely.” Her head slumped forward and she dove down into the inky, sickly sweetness.
When she raised her head, sunlight streamed in through the window. Matt was sleeping on her left. Bewildered, she glanced at the time on her phone. Oh shit. She bolted up from the mattress and jumped in the shower.
The patches were far too strong, she realized, as she sped to High Falls after dropping Matt off at day care. It was best to stay away from them in the future. Or perhaps save them just for the weekend. As she got out of her car, she reached for her purse, only to grasp air. Standing outside the car, she ran her eyes over the front and back seats and floorspace. Nothing. She must have left it at home. When it rains, it pours.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said to Sheryl at the front door of the McMansion.
“Oh, no worries at all. Glad you’re here,” Sheryl said. She seemed distracted, and avoided eye contact with Marjorie. “Arthur is at breakfast, and Agatha just woke up.” She took a few steps toward her car. Turned back to Marjorie, as if she wanted to say something else. Hesitated, then turned and continued walking across the driveway.
Marjorie felt a pang of guilt. Her lateness had made Sheryl late for work. After Marjorie got Arthur and Agatha settled down, she prepared a dish for lunch and put it in the oven.
As she was sweeping the kitchen floor, Marjorie felt a moistness between her legs, accompanied by familiar cramps in her abdomen. Lord, right now? It had to start now? It was not supposed to happen for another week. What happened? She walked over to her purse to get a tampon, then remembered that her purse was at home. What a day.
Marjorie went upstairs to find a tampon in Sheryl’s room, only to discover that the door was locked. Strange. She had never remembered it being locked before. As she headed back toward the stairs, she passed by the drawer and could not help but glance inside.
“What the –” she whispered. The Vicodin bottle was gone. She stared longingly at the empty space where it had been. Marjorie looked at the closed, locked door to Sheryl’s room, then thought back to Sheryl’s awkward behavior that morning. She had chalked it up to her own lateness, but now realized that Sheryl must have noticed the dramatic reduction in Vicodin pills. The plastic bag of Fentanyl patches remained, however. Since Marjorie had only taken one, it still looked full. Sheryl must not have realized that those were far more potent than the Vicodin.
Marjorie felt a trickle of blood running down the inside of her thigh. She hurried to the bathroom just as another cramp hit, making her yelp. Not too long ago, her menstrual cramps were just an annoyance. Now, the pain was excruciating. She was far more sensitive to pain than before, she realized. Even the slightest prick felt like a stab.
In the bathroom, Marjorie used toilet paper to clean herself up as best she could. She cursed herself for not having her purse at hand. It contained not only her tampons, but also her chocolate, which she viewed as equally important in getting her through her periods.
Marjorie was clutching something in her left hand. She opened it, revealing the packet on her palm. A Fentanyl patch. She must have grabbed it unconsciously from the hallway drawer before going to the bathroom. She slipped it into her pocket, then went downstairs. Arthur sat on the floor watching the gerbil show, while Agatha finished her breakfast. Marjorie opened the fridge, saw a bottle of wine that had just been opened. Grabbed it, took a few sips.
Another cramp hit Marjorie, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. In the absence of any medication, the pain magnified until it blocked out everything. She found herself unable to focus on anything else. Where was the Vicodin?!
“Marjorie, my dear?” Agatha asked. “You look so pensive. My husband thinks so too.”
“I’m fine,” Marjorie said quickly. “Just a little tired, that’s all.” The bottle of wine seemed lighter in her hand than she remembered. She glanced down and discovered that she had drained it completely. After rinsing the inside of the bottle and discarding it in the recycling, Marjorie slipped into the downstairs bathroom, closing the door tightly behind her. As she removed the Fentanyl patch from the packet, the damp feeling returned to her nether regions. Sighing, she lowered her pants and used toilet paper to clean herself again. There was already some staining on the inside of her panties. When Arthur was a baby, there had been plenty of diapers around, but none remained now that he was potty trained. She would have to do a quick drive to the store to get a tampon because this would just not do.
But the pain was her bigger concern. It was reducing her capacity to think rationally. She unsealed the Fentanyl patch, started sucking on it to get relief faster. The awful, bitter taste made her gag. But, knowing the splendid payoff, she kept at it. Looked down at the tender opening between her legs, which she wanted to keep dry and clean. Then at the patch. Rolled up, it did not look that different from a tampon. Same texture, similar absorptive properties. And it would give her quick relief without the awful taste.
The next cramp decided the matter. She gradually inserted the rolled-up patch into herself. Waited for sweet, sweet relief to kick in. It was the right thing to do, she was sure of it. She deserved it.
Several more minutes of throbbing pain, as she leaned back against the wall of the bathroom and breathed deeply. Then a gradual diminishing. Then, at long last, the good times rolled in, and all was dandy and well. Laughing at how quickly the pain had completely evaporated, she shuffled out of the bathroom, wondering why her stride was so limited, why it was taking her longer than usual to head back to the living room. She plopped down on the couch, felt the cool leather against her buttocks and the backs of her thighs. She had never experienced that exact sensation before.
Arthur had turned his head and was now looking back at her, eyes wide, the gerbil cartoon forgotten. His gaze moved from her cheery face down to her fully exposed crotch, to her bare legs, to the pants and bloodstained panties pooled around her ankles. Then back up to her face. Then down to her crotch again. There the gaze remained. His face scrunched up, and he began to cry. Marjorie looked down and froze. She had forgotten to pull her pants back up. She needed to do that as soon as possible. She made a note of it in her mind, but it was hard to stay focused on anything.
“Marjorie,” Agatha said from the dining room table. “That is not dignified. No, not dignified at all.” She turned to her invisible husband. “Don’t let me catch you looking, Charles. I mean it. No more hanky panky. We talked about this.”
Marjorie’s mind continued swimming in a syrupy haze. This was better than last time, better than even the hospital. She wished it would last forever and ever and . . .
This concludes Season One. The narrative will resume in Season Two of American Opioid. Your feedback is much appreciated. Please submit comments in the Contact section of the American Opioid website at www.americanopioid.org. See you next time on Season Two of American Opioid. Take care.
The Season Two script is now available: https://medium.com/@jamalkhan1/american-opioid-podcast-season-2-script-3d690eb23da1