Agoraphobia: Anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing) or in which help may not be available. [...] The situations are avoided (e.g., travel is restricted) or else are endured with marked distress [...] or require the presence of a companion.
Most of the women in your life had their heads down. [...] It is not a shame, however, that kept their heads down. They were singing, searching for meaning in the dust. And sometimes, they were talking to faces across the ages, faces like yours and mine.
Maria hesitated and muttered "I gotta go" and hung up the phone. A second later the door splintered and exploded and two cops stormed into the tiny hotel room, guns drawn.
"Police! Get down on the—" But Maria was face-down on the floor, hands behind. One of them stood over her and pulled out the steel cuffs. "Thought you could hide, Gonzales," he said. He snapped them on, tight, and pulled her up. She winced, and he noticed she was talking to herself. He jostled her. "What?"
She moved into a whisper. He could only catch the occasional word: "today.. myself..". The cop rolled his eyes and pushed her toward his partner.
"You take her," he said. His partner nodded and guided Maria out into the hallway. Some of the people in nearby rooms watched through tiny cracks. They went to the stairs, and then down into the street. He looked up to make sure the light in the room was still on, and then produced his key and loosened the cuffs. He pushed her gently into the back of the cruiser. Three people stood nearby, watching.
The officer got behind the wheel and started it up. "I heard about your husband," he said. "I understand why you did it." The engine hummed. "Why didn't you use an alias?" He looked at her in the rearview. She shook her head. His partner appeared and got in.
Maria gazed out the window as they left the hotel parking lot. She mumbled a string of words he couldn't hear, but eventually said, a little louder: "He deserved to die."
"Maybe they'll go easy on you," the driver said.
"I hope not," his partner said, glancing back at her. "Psycho girl." He chuckled. "Last thing my wife needs is getting ideas like that." He turned to the driver. "You know she stabbed him in the crotch?" The driver nodded slowly, and his partner glanced back at Maria. "What a psycho," he said.
Maria's voice continued, a low murmur beneath the hum of the engine and the occasional crackle of dispatch. She spoke up a little: "I deserve to be punished for what I did."
The second cop nodded. "Got that right," he said. The driver sighed.
I am ten years old. My mother is furious, she is screaming at me. This is not a new thing; in fact I have gotten used to it. I didn't wash the dishes after school so now I'm paying the price. She uses horrible words and gestures angrily at me while she slams frozen processed food into the microwave and sets it going.
My sister is terrified. She stands beside me, quivering, as our mother yells at me and calls me names. The yelling and the names seep into our minds and keep us awake at night. I have nightmares all the time. I lie awake in the dark and doubt myself and wonder if I'll ever really sleep again.
The yelling gets louder. My sister doesn't know what to do, but I do. I stand a little in front of her, ready to be a shield in case things get worse. Our mother has never hit us, but I won't be surprised if she does, one day soon. Our last mother did.
I know what to do, because I've been here before. Once when my sister was staying late at school, taking a test, I got it alone. The insults, the cursing, the yelling. She blames me for her boyfriend leaving, but of course that happened before we showed up. She blames me for her headaches and insomnia, but of course the drinks are probably responsible. She blames me for not doing the dishes, and she's right. It all becomes one moment; the fluid movement of time stagnates and it happens once, together.
Laura holds my hand weakly; she does not want our mother to see. The yelling goes on, we wait. I am only a little older than my sister, but I feel the weight of protection. I hear her whimpering. I can't do anything about it. Or maybe I can.
"If I talk like this," I say to her, in a voice next to silence, "can you hear me?"
"Yes," my sister says.
"Then I'll talk like this."
And so it begins. My words are cloaked in shadow, impossible to see. Sneaking in the hollows between the rage, dropping in between syllables, heard only by my sister.
I tell her that we will be okay. I tell her that our mother is wrong. I tell her that I will always be there to protect her. I tell her that this, too, shall pass. I tell her that people who do bad things experience bad things. Only one of these do I believe with any certainty.
Maria dribbled, posted up near the corner, and shot the ball. It hit the backboard and sank in. She said something quietly about having game. She retrieved the ball and dribbled slowly, speaking softly to herself. As usual, she was alone on the court. The other women lifted weights, stood around smoking cigarettes.
A tall woman with short braids appeared and snatched the ball from her hands. "What is your problem?" she asked.
Maria took a step back and lowered her head, glaring at the woman with eyebrows of suspicion. She spoke quietly. "What do you mean?"
"You're always talking to yourself," the woman said. "Always babbling and muttering and stuff. It's creepy as hell."
A guard near the fence waved at them. "Jackie, leave that girl alone."
Jackie waved. "It's all right, man," she said. "We just talkin'." She froze and swung her gaze back toward Maria. "You had something to do with that fire the other day, didn't you?"
Maria blinked, but didn't change her eyes. "What fire?"
Jackie dropped her voice. "Don't play me stupid," she said. "You're a damn freak, and freaks are the ones who do stuff like start fires."
Maria blinked at her again. "My mother told me not to play with fire." She reached for the ball. "You could get hurt."
Jackie pulled the ball back. "My girl Yvette's next to you in cell block four." She narrowed her eyes. "She said she heard you talking to yourself extra angry when the fire broke out."
"Fire makes me nervous," Maria said. "I was scared someone was hurt."
"Yeah," Jackie said. "And you don't want no one gettin' hurt, do you?" She dribbled the ball and went to the corner and took a shot. "Just your husband." She retrieved the ball and passed it to Maria. "I heard you stabbed him in the nuts."
Maria said a few words under her breath, dribbled, and took a shot from three. It sank in clean. Jackie grabbed the ball and went to the same spot. She paused, lining up her shot. "He hit ya?"
Maria nodded a little, whispered something inaudible. Jackie took the shot and it clattered against the backboard and dropped in. She got the ball and gave it to Maria, who took a shot and missed. Jackie made a free throw and passed to Maria. Maria muttered something about Epiphany Prince and sank her shot.
A few minutes later Jackie missed another shot and cursed. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and tossed them to Maria. She caught them and gave Jackie a puzzled look.
Jackie smiled. "You didn't know we were playing Horse?" Maria's face softened and she said something. Jackie shook her head. "You should pay more attention," she said, and took the ball back. "But I was sure you would owe me," she said, dropping a shot. "I watched you last week and you were bricking like crazy." She grabbed the ball and dribbled.
Then she stopped and looked sideways at Maria. "Were you hustling me?"
Maria pulled a smoke out and lit it. She smiled. "Sort of."
I can't even remember his name. That's how stupid this whole thing is. I am in bed with him, we're both sweating. My sister throws the door open; I curse and stop moving. She stands there, her duffel bag pulling her body to the right, the dark green hoodie sweatshirt unzipped. She's let her hair grow out; I've been keeping mine short. She is a silhouette in the light from the hallway. She's supposed to be in Chicago. But she's not; she's here, and we're busted. I should apologize and beg for her forgiveness, but I don't. I get indignant as I get dressed. Her boyfriend wasn't worth it anyway. She's standing there, muttering something about how she thought she could trust me.
I try to think of what I can say, and before I know it I'm talking to myself too. We're both like crazy people, spewing weird streams of words. The odd thing is that the words wriggle between each other; they don't clash or bump into themselves. Even while I call her hideous names and blame her for not satisfying her man, my voice seeps into hers and together we sound like one person speaking with great speed.
We get louder. The guy — such a scumbag — he's just laughing. She's such a stupid little girl for getting with him in the first place, and I am even littler and stupider for cheating with him. What the hell do I know? I'm seventeen. He's twenty something. He meets her at a party in Brooklyn, they hook up right away. He knows exactly what he's doing, but we have no idea. We won't know, for years. Maybe we'll never know.
I think back to that time when I didn't do the dishes. I was in the wrong then, and I'm in the wrong now. But some weird sense of pride throws itself up into my brain and I can't back down. Something about always being on the defensive — you lose the ability to tell when you actually are wrong. But I deserve better than this. She owes me.. something. It's ludicrous, but it clouds my mind and instead of doing what I ought to do, I do what I want to do.
Her words get louder and slower. "I loved you," she says. "This kind of betrayal.. I just don't understand it."
I say something nasty and biting, about how she's put on weight. It's stupid, something a child would say. Well, I guess that makes sense. She's crying now, and I realize she hadn't been crying this whole time.
But I have. I'm angry at her, but of course I'm really angry at myself.
"I'll never forgive you for this," she says.
"Good," I spit back. "I don't want you to." And I don't. I grab my stuff from the table and head for the door. The guy's still in bed, smiling, smoking a cigarette, watching it all go down. He couldn't care less about either of us.
"I hope you die," she says, quietly, just as I get next to her. He can't hear her.
"You know what?" I spit back, furious. I sound like my mother with the yelling. "Don't just hope." I point to her face, even though I'm right beside her. I've always been right beside her. I'm talking louder than I should be. My words are jagged; they feel wrong in my mouth but they're moving on their own and I have no control over them. "I'm dead." I step back. "There, Maria, I said it. Go and be happy with your stupid boy here." I spit toward the bed, and the guy laughs. "I'm going where you should have been."
I slam the door on my way out.
The guard banged a stick on the bars and the clang reverberated off the walls of the cell. Maria mumbled something quietly and looked up. His keys jangled and he shook his head. "Hey Sybil," he said. "You got a visitor."
Maria rose and pulled her arms together. She whispered something about love and gratitude and the noise and the silence, and followed the guard out into the hallway.
She felt her eyes get wet as she spotted Sebastian, sitting there in the room full of small chairs and wobbly tables. She could see the hospital scrubs under his jacket. To his right a father joked around with his sons. Sebastian looked up and their eyes met and he waved a little.
Maria approached and paused for a moment as he stood up. She started crying a little and Sebastian scowled. "You okay?" he asked.
She nodded and smiled through her tears. She hugged him, tight. "It's so good to see you," she said. He hugged her back.
"Must have been a rough week," he said.
She held on. "Yeah," she said. "Pretty rough." She reached into the back of his jacket and dropped something into the little pocket near his neck. "This is the last one," she whispered.
He pulled away. "Why?"
"She's getting better," Maria said as they sat down. "I don't need to keep sending them." Sebastian nodded, but his face was full of worry. "I was talking to a shrink that works with some of the kids," he said. "I asked him and he said maybe your mom's got agoraphobia."
Maria thought back to the library. It was warm there, a good place to go during the day when she was on her own. When she started to think she was losing it, she'd read up on some different mental problems. "Is that the one where you always worry you're going to get raped?"
He shook his head. "No, it's about being scared to go outside." He sat back and his mini-dreadlocks bounced a little. "He said her condition pretty much fits the description."
Maria shrugged. "Could be," she said. "But she says she's doing fine these days. She's going to church all the time." He let out a slow breath. "Seriously," she said. "I know you're worried, but .. trust me. She'll be okay."
"I wish I could meet her," he said. "Just to make sure there's nothing.. you know, physical. Just check her pulse and stuff."
Maria smiled and squeezed his hand. "I know," she said. "But trust me. I know this woman. She's doing okay." A moment passed. She dropped her head a little to make eye contact. "Trust me."
He nodded. "Okay."
I meet Sebastian at the June parade in East Harlem. I'm totally hot for him — his copper skin is vibrating with the drums. But his girl just died from breast cancer and suddenly I'm a skank for even thinking about it. Within a month I realize I would have made a crazy mistake anyway. He's way too conservative and quiet and timid. Still, he knows how to listen to a girl and he knows what he wants. Late one night when we're hanging out on the roof of his apartment building, he makes it clear that what he wants isn't me. I feel hurt for about a week, and then I realize I'm being stupid and I get over it and I go back to appreciating how lucky I am to have a friend like him.
He asks to meet my mom, but I explain how she's scared of everyone. I feel bad because I want to have him over, but it's just not possible. I can't let him that far into my life. Maybe in a few years. I've met his brother and his aunt, and I feel like I'm being weird. But he understands. He gives me space.
In August he takes me to a party in The Bronx. There are too many people, the music's too loud, too much debauchery. Sebastian is uncomfortable but we dance a little anyway. When he steps away for half a second, Alexander is there.
Alexander is strong — he works out while Sebastian is watching TV shows about cooking. Alexander is wild, driven. He moves like he's trying to keep his center of gravity low, his legs writhing with a ferocious sensuality. I pretend to be unimpressed. He can tell I'm faking. We dance. Before I know it, we're kissing in a dark corner. I find Sebastian and tell him I'm going home with Alexander.
He raises an eyebrow. "That guy?" he asks.
I tilt my head. "C'mon, Seb. Let a girl have some fun."
He hugs me. "Okay, but just.. be careful."
I smile. "I will."
Twenty minutes later he's tearing through the borough, way over the speed limit. It's the most exciting thing to happen to me in three years. I want more. I tell him to go faster, speaking in a low murmur. He realizes a cop is chasing us and he decides to lose him. Sharp turns and quick stops and suddenly we're in a parking garage and we can hear the cop tear past. We start kissing.
One month later he brings me up onto the roof of his apartment building. I can see Sebastian's place. Alexander and I see each other every day. He waits for me after work. Today he wants to show me something.
"Here," he says, handing me his cell phone. I take it, confused.
He produces another one. It's red. He brings up the contact list and shows it to me. All females — Angie, Carmen, Celestina, Eva, Isabel, Monique, Zoe. He takes it back and presses some buttons. A delete confirmation pops up.
"You push it," he says. It's silly but it feels good anyway. After I push it he takes a step back and then throws the red phone as far as he can. Then he kisses me and then he pulls out a box and before I know what's happening he's on his knee and there's a half-carat of diamonds staring at me. I whisper a prayer of thanks.
I say yes before he even asks.
Sebastian stepped off the bus and crossed the street. He went into the lobby of the rundown brick building and approached the mailboxes. Trash and junk mail decorated the room; he could smell urine. He gazed at the mailbox marked "Santiago", then produced the flash drive and slid it through the slot. It clattered to the bottom and he glanced around.
The door to a maintenance closet stood ajar. He glanced down the hallway toward the first-floor apartments, then up the narrow staircase. No one. Cheap yellow paint over splintered woodwork. He went into the closet and turned on the light. A desk with a folding chair, two brooms, and a plunger. He turned the light off and closed the door most of the way. He could see the mailboxes through the opening. He pulled the folding chair around and sat.
It doesn't take long for the honeymoon to end. I should have seen it coming. Six years later but I'm still that stupid girl, chasing thrills and pretending to be invincible. He's yelling at me now, insane with jealousy.
"Didn't I cut all of them off for you?" he asks, waving his hand upward. Same spot where he threw his ladies' phone away. Same spot he threatened to push me off last week.
"Sebastian's just a friend," I say, and drink. He drinks and stares at me. The window is open; it's hot. I can tell he's close to passing out. Wish he'd just hurry up and do it.
"No such thing," Alexander says. "Friendzone now, but he's just waiting."
I roll my eyes. He seethes, tries to stand up. He falls over and crawls to the garbage can and vomits into it and spits on the ground. "Look at what you're doing to me," he says. Quietly — he's muttering.
"You're doing it to yourself," I say, but I wonder if maybe he's right. Do I even know what I want? He's given me a good home, bought me a car. He wants kids but I just don't know. He's willing to hit me; why would he be different with them?
It's never anything bad. I'll throw something and he'll throw something and we'll both yell and someone gets hurt. Not hurt bad, just a little hurt. He gets hurt emotionally, I get hurt physically. It's all pain.
Of course that's only during the bad times. There are plenty of good times. Flowers and forgiveness, the confessions of fear, the baring of souls. Promises, protection, pride.
He passes out and I go out. Just walking for a while, and then over to Sebastian's. We go up on his roof and talk. I steer clear of anything serious. He tells me about the latest girlfriend. His voice is getting a little desperate. I think he's changed his mind about me, but I can't really tell. There's a silence and I start singing, nearly a whisper. Something we used to sing in school. It's reassuring. Eventually it becomes a string of words. Sebastian is peering at me.
"What?" he asks.
I make the words come together more. ".. can't keep going.. hate myself.." I'm crying and he holds my hand. ".. ribs .. he knows how to not leave a mark.." A siren comes and goes.
He sighs and nods slowly. "How long has it been going on?"
I shrug a little and let more words flop around. ".. about a year.. gets better, then not.."
"Why don't you leave him?" he asks.
I look up, tears smearing my dark eyes. And marry you instead? I wipe my eyes. "I still love him," I say.
One hour later I'm back home. He's managed to make it into bed. I sit down on it and untie my shoes. He pushes himself beside me and wraps an arm around my waist. "I'm so sorry," he says, groggy. He sniffles and does a little sob into my back. I can never tell if it's real or not. "I just get so scared."
I roll my eyes and pull the shoes off. He falls in a way that lets him look right up at me.
"If you left me, I'd kill myself." I look away.
Sebastian shifted his weight again and yawned. Two hours and three false alarms. On the bright side, none of them seemed to notice him. He wondered how a person became a private investigator. He also wondered what he was going to eat for dinner. Hunger was starting to gnaw at him.
Then she appeared. Baseball cap, dark green hoodie sweatshirt. Sunglasses. Black jeans, black sneakers. She's way too young to be her mother. Right to the Santiago mailbox, key out. Opened it, grabbed the drive, closed it, locked it. Should I jump out and say something?
She walked out the front door and Sebastian checked his watch. Another hour of daylight. He waited a few seconds, then left the closet. He went into the street and saw her turn the corner. He zipped up his jacket and went after her.
I'm standing in the kitchen. There's silverware all over the floor. Broken glass, various fluids. One of his shoes came off at some point. My hands are shaking. I'm talking to myself.
"What happened? What happened? Who is it? Who am I?" I look around. I'm seeing red. Lots of red, all over. He wanted me. "I didn't want him. He didn't care what time of the month it was." I sit down and my jeans are instantly soaked. "I'm bleeding." I look at my hands. I'm seeing red. "I'm seeing red," I say. Just putting words out there.
He can't hear me now.
"He never heard me. Well if he did, he didn't listen." I look at him. "You never listened." He just looks up at the ceiling. Well, sort of. I chuckle a little. "Your phone was red," I say. "Everything's red."
I stand up and change into different jeans. I pull on my dark green hoodie and grab my keys. Then I put the keys down and go and wash my hands. I go where the floor is clean and put on my shoes and then wrap some plastic bags around them. I put a bag on my hand. "Can't get caught red-handed," I say. My voice is low, next to silence. "He's like Laura now," I say. I wonder where she is.
I have to get out of the city. I pull the car key off the ring and leave the apartment. I drive west. The GPS talks to me and I talk to it.
Later I roll down the window. "Sorry, GPS," I say. "I can't risk it." I throw it off the bridge and keep going west.
Sebastian unzipped his jacket. It was warm in the library. The magazines were beside the checkout counter. He grabbed a sports weekly and flipped through it. Not very busy, but enough people to hide him. He thought about a video game he'd played once where he had to sneak around by standing in groups of people. This felt about the same.
She sat down at a computer and pulled off her sunglasses and glanced around. She pulled out the flash drive and put it in, then clicked the mouse a few times. She pulled a pair of earbuds out of her pocket and plugged them in. She put one in her ear and dropped her head a little and closed her eyes.
No sense waiting around, he thought. He walked to her and tapped her on the shoulder. "Excuse me, miss—"
She spun around and pulled the earbud out. He could hear a few words: ".. one of us should be happy.." She smiled.
He stepped back, his eyes wide. "What the hell!?" Some of the people at other computers looked up at him, then away.
"Quiet." She pulled the flash drive out and hit alt-F4 several times and all the windows vanished and she pulled out the earbuds and stuffed them into her pocket.
"Maria, what the f—"
"Shhh!" She put a finger to her lips and stood up. "C'mon."
They went outside and she hailed a cab. He felt numb. They got in.
"Hoboken," she said. The driver nodded and headed west.
I'm hungry. The sun is going down and I haven't eaten all day. I'm sitting under a bridge and staring into the disgusting water. I'm muttering to myself about how lucky the fish are, and then I look up and Laura's there.
I freeze and I am silent.
"How did you get here?" I ask.
She smiles. "I have my ways," she says, and hands me a bag. I open it and pull out a cheeseburger and fries and I inhale them. She sits on the ground beside me.
"Thanks," I say. I crumple the bag into a tight ball and throw it in the river. I wipe my hands on my dark green hoodie.
A few minutes go by. I want to say something but everything seems useless. Finally I hear her sniffle and she rubs her nose.
"If I talk like this," she says, in a voice next to silence, "can you hear me?"
I start crying. "Yes."
"You killed him."
"They're looking for you."
"He hit you."
"Yes." I cry. "And raped me."
She reaches over and takes my hand. "I'm sorry," she says.
I nod, but she pushes my head to face her.
"I'm sorry," she says again, so quiet I can barely hear her. But I can. I hear her perfectly. "For everything." I collapse into her and she hugs me. Both of us are crying now.
Eventually I sit up and wipe at my eyes. "So," I say, laughing weakly. "How have you been?"
She smiles and nods a little. Her hair is long; I've been keeping mine short. "I'm all right," she says, and I can feel the truth of it. She has a calmness that I've always dreamed about. I think about the butterfly and the tornado. I read a book about it once — it's called sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Her eyes are contented. "Mostly."
"Still having those nightmares?"
I nod, and let out a breath. "You married?" I ask.
She nods. "Kids?"
She shakes her head. "We thought about adopting."
I give a chuckle. "There are plenty of kids out there who could use a good home." I stare at my hands. "What's his name?"
She nods. "Kinda boring, but.. you know."
I nod. "Boring can be better than the alternative."
She sighs, and a moment passes. "Did he.. you.. a lot?"
I close my eyes and it all comes back. I'm seeing red. Over and over. By the end it was once a week, at least. "Over and over," I say.
"You can't just keep running," she says.
I push my hands into my eyes and water escapes. "I know," I say quietly.
After a few minutes she stands up. "I'm turning you in," she says.
I look up. "What?" I ask and jump to my feet. "How could you—"
She pulls out a pair of scissors and grabs her hair and slices. She pulls the clumps away and throws them in the river. "Gimme the green hoodie," she says.
I hesitate. "Laura, you can't.."
She takes off her black coat. It's wool, soft. She holds it toward me. "It's the only way I can get you to forgive me."
I shake my head, slowly. "I forgive you," I say. "I'm not letting you do this."
Her arm sags a little, still holding out the big warm coat. "Well, then.." She pauses and looks into my eyes. "It's the only way I can forgive myself."
I think about it, then nod a little. I unzip the green hoodie and hand it to her and take her coat and put it on. It smells of lavender. I put my hands into the pockets and feel a ring of keys and a wallet.
She zips up the hoodie and smiles at me. "My car's up there," she says, gesturing to the embankment above us. "There's some money in the wallet."
She smiles. "Call me Maria. I need to get in the habit."
I laugh, then stop and look up at her. "It's not your fault," I say.
She nods. "Yeah, I know. But.. you know. 1999."
I shake my head. "I'm not going to lie. I've been angry."
"And maybe your anger made you—"
Then I hug her. The lavender mixes with the funky smell of the green hoodie and my tears and snot. "I'm not letting go," I say.
She reaches into her jeans and pulls out a small grey plastic thing. "This is an audio recorder," she says, and pulls the cap off. "And a flash drive." She hands it to me, along with a handwritten note. "Talk into it and mail it to Sebastian, along with that note."
I read the note and smile. "It's from mom."
She nods. "Yeah, the agoraphobic." She takes a breath. "He'll put it in the mailbox and you can get it."
She smiles and I realize I'm looking at myself. We hug again.
I step back and sigh. "Be careful," I say.
She nods and pulls the coat closed. "You too."
I turn and walk up to the road. I put my hands in the pockets of the hoodie and play with the cap on the flash drive.
I check into a cheap hotel. I write "Maria Gonzales" on the card and it feels weird.
Later that night I stare at the phone. Finally, I pick it up and dial.
Kevin answers in a tense but weary voice. "Hey," I say, just louder than a whisper.
"Oh my God," he says. "Where—"
"I can't talk long," I say. "I'm going to be gone for a while."
"Shhh. I told you, I don't have much time." I can see the red and blue lights outside. "You have to find someone else."
"Laura, there is no way anyone else—"
"I'm sorry I can't tell you more." I push a hand to my face, holding back the tears. I hear footsteps in the hallway. "I love you."
"Laura, tell me what—"
I hesitate and mutter "I gotta go" and hang up the phone. A second later the door splinters and explodes and two cops storm into the tiny hotel room, guns drawn.
"You're twins?" Sebastian stared at her. Laura smiled a little and nodded, drinking her coffee. The cafe was empty, but music was playing and they felt safe talking.
"She's two minutes older," she said.
"Why didn't she tell me?" he asked.
"She was protecting you," Laura said. "So was I. You're an accomplice."
He scowled into his coffee. "Does your mother even live in that apartment?"
She shook her head. "We never knew our mother."
He looked up. "She abandoned us and we grew up in foster homes."
She nodded. "Here and there. Most of them sucked." He gazed out the window. "Sorry." he said.
"Not your fault." She drank. "Anyway, when we got older we made up a story about how our mom lived in an apartment but was scared to come out. That way we could pretend to be normal but we had an excuse if anyone wanted to meet her."
"Fooled me," he said.
She sighed. "In 1999 I did something really horrible. We had a fight and we split up and we never spoke again."
"And then she went away, and you sent me the flash drive."
She nodded. "I knew she trusted you, so we made you the bag man."
"Why not just visit her?"
She paused, for several minutes. "I can't." She looked at him. "I wish I could tell you why. No one deserves to know more than you." She put her cup down and reached out and grabbed his hand. "You've become the most important person in her life, Sebastian." He smiled a little. "I mean it," she said. "You have no idea what your friendship means to her." She took the cup again and drank. "And to me."
"I hate dealing with secrets," he said, scowling into his coffee.
She nodded. "I know," she said. "Me too." She sighed. "Believe me, I held that secret about '99 for eleven years. Tore me up every damn day." She looked up at him. "We'll tell you eventually, I promise."
He nodded. "I know." He drank. "I guess you had your reasons before, so I'll trust you for now." He sat back. "But it had better be one hell of a story."
She smiled. "Rest assured, it's one of the best stories you'll ever hear." She sighed. "In the meantime, please keep visiting her."
"Of course. And you?"
She pulled the flash drive out from her pocket. "I only came here for this."
"She said it was 'the last one'."
Laura nodded. "Yeah, we're all finished with it now."
"Where will you go?" he asked.
"Chicago," she said. "My husband misses me." "What's his name?"
"He treat you right?"
She nodded, with a little smile.
"You treat him right?"
She chuckled. "I try."
He grew serious. "Don't keep secrets from him."
She sighed. "Just one," she said. "Just until she gets out."
He nodded slowly. "I guess you know what you're doing."
"I hope so." She drained her coffee cup and placed a ten-dollar bill on the table. "I need you to do one more thing with me."
"Sure," he said, standing up. They left the cafe and went into a nearby alleyway. She produced the flash drive and kissed it. Then she put it on the ground and picked up a rock. She handed it to Sebastian. "You sure?" he asked. "You don't want to keep it for, like, a memento?"
She shook her head. "It's time for this thing to die."
He nodded and crouched down and brought the rock down on the grey plastic thing three times. Shards of circuitry and plastic flipped around. He stood up.
She hugged him. "Thank you, Sebastian."
"You're welcome," he said.
"I'll see you in January 2022."
He nodded. They walked out to the street and she hailed a cab and it drove away.
I am in my cell. It sucks, prison sucks. I try to kill time with cards and basketball. I've got a pretty good poker face, but I'm terrible at basketball. I'm about to go to sleep when an alarm starts ringing. I hear some shouting and the word "fire" sounds in the distance. Guards go running off. I go to the bars but of course I can see nothing.
When I turn around, my sister is in the cell with me.
"How did you get here?" I ask.
She smiles. "I have my ways," she says, and unzips the dark green hoodie. She sits down on the bed.
"Go away," I say. We are speaking in tense whispers, a steady rhythm that layers itself on the lowest levels of voice. We can hear each other over the ringing alarm, but just barely. "I told you how this is going to work."
She shakes her head. "I thought about it," she says. "A lot." She sighs. "It's not fair. Not fair to you, and not fair to me."
"I told you—"
"I know what you told me. And I told you how angry I was. I'm still angry." She looks up, her eyes damp. "But you don't deserve this."
I sit down beside her. "Neither do you."
"Maybe not." A moment passes. "But Kevin definitely doesn't."
I start crying. "He's gotten used to it," I say. I know she's right, but I resist.
"I called him today," she says. I look up with alarm. "I told him I'd be home soon."
"What did he say?"
"I didn't give him a chance to say anything." She takes my hand. "He sounded worried." My mind reels. Three decades of our lives whirl around and overwhelm me. I collapse into her. She strokes my hair. "Go back to him," she says. I nod weakly.
After a few minutes, I stand up and take off the uniform. She removes the green hoodie and her jeans and I realize, once again, that I am looking at myself.
We get dressed. She struggles a little as she zips up the jeans. "You've put on some weight," I say. She chuckles. "It's good," I say. "You look healthy."
We hug. "I love you," she says.
"I love you too."
"Parole in ten?" she asks. I nod, and she says
"I'll see you then."
The alarm stops ringing. I turn to face the bars.
"Go," I say.
And then I am alone.
Laura opened the door and Kevin rose from the sofa and knocked over two empty bottles on the coffee table. The room's only light was the blue glow of the silent television. He stumbled over to her and grabbed her. He cried into her neck and she sighed. "I'm so sorry," she said.
"Oh God," he said. "What happened?" He pulled away and wiped his eyes. "Where were you?" She looked at him, her eyes heavy with sorrow. He scowled. "Please tell me what happened." She looked down and he turned quickly and went back to the sofa and sat down. She unzipped the green hoodie and hung it on a hook on the closet door, then sat beside him.
"I want to," she said. "I hate asking you for this."
He stood up. "You can't expect me to just accept this. Do you have any idea—"
"Yes," she said, standing. "I know what you went through." He started to talk, but she pointed at him. "I know you think I don't, but I do." She lowered her voice to a place next to silence. "I know what it's like to think that the person you love most in the world might be dead. I really do understand that. I know about the fear, I know about the pain."
He glared at her.
"I do," she said again. "I know that you cried yourself to sleep sometimes, and you wondered what sort of pain she might be in, if she's even alive. I know how you left a light on some nights, just so she could find you in case she somehow came back."
He nodded a little. "I did."
She tried to smile. It was hard, but she managed to. "Well," she said. "I came back."
He let out an angry breath. "I can't do this if you don't tell me."
She stepped to him and took his hand in hers. "Can you wait ten years?"
He tilted his head. "Why?"
She sighed. "January 2022," she said. "I'll tell you everything."
He hesitated, a long, frustrated moment of heat and fury and sadness. Then he exhaled and pulled her close. "I guess I don't have a choice," he said.
"Thank you," she said, looking up with a tearful smile. They kissed. "I love you," she said.
"I love you too." He hugged her again. "I'm just so glad you're home." They stood there for a moment, wrapped in the blue light. "Come on," he said, switching it off. "Let's go to bed."
And for the first time in her life, she slept through the night.