Chapter no 21

Hidden Pictures

All my problems started with a simple sacral stress fracture

—a tiny break in the triangle-shaped bone at the base of my spine. This was September of my senior year of high school, and the recommended treatment was eight weeks of rest— right at the start of cross-country season. It was bad news but not a complete disaster. The injury was common among young women runners, easily treatable, and wouldn’t impact my offer from Penn State. The doctors prescribed OxyContin for the pain—a single forty-milligram tablet twice a day. Everyone said I would be fine for winter track in November.

I still went to all the practices and I lugged around equipment and helped to tally everyone’s scores—but it was hard to watch my teammates from the sidelines, knowing I should be running alongside them. Plus, since I had more time on my hands, my mother expected me to do more around the house. More cooking and cleaning and shopping and looking after my sister.

Mom raised us single-handedly. She was short, overweight, and she smoked a pack a day—even though she worked at Mercy Hospital, as a billing administrator, so she knew all the health risks. Beth and I were always after her to quit, always hiding her Newports under the sofa or other places she would never look. She would just go out and buy new ones. She said they were her coping mechanism, that we needed to get off her case. She was always quick to remind us we had no grandparents, no

aunts or uncles, and there was definitely no second husband on the horizon—so the three of us had to show up for each other. That was our big refrain growing up: showing up for each other.

Three or four Saturdays a year, the hospital would summon my mother for “Surprise Mandatory Overtime” to plow through all the outstanding billing disputes that nobody could make sense of. One Friday evening Mom got the call and told us she had to go to work the next day. Then she told me I had to drive my sister to Storybook Land.

“Me? Why me?”

“Because I promised I would take her.” “Take her Sunday. You’re off Sunday.”

“But Beth wants to bring Chenguang, and Chenguang can only go Saturday.”

Chenguang was my sister’s best friend, a weirdo with pink hair who drew cat whiskers on her cheeks. She and Beth were in some kind of anime club.

“I’ve got a meet tomorrow! In Valley Forge. I won’t be back until three.”

“Skip the meet,” my mother said. “You’re not running.

The team doesn’t need you.”

I tried explaining to my mother that my presence delivered a huge psychological boost to my teammates, but she wasn’t buying it. “You’re driving Beth and Chenguang.”

“They’re too big for Storybook Land! It’s a kiddie park!” “They’re going ironically.” My mother opened the back

door, lit a cigarette, and exhaled smoke through the screen. “They know they’re too big for it, that’s why they want to go.” She shrugged like this was a perfectly rational thing for people to do.

The next morning—Saturday, October 7—Chenguang arrived at our house wearing a yellow shirt with a glittery white unicorn and faded jeans. She was eating a bag of sour spaghetti gummy candy and she offered me some. I shook my head and said I would rather die. Beth came downstairs

and she was wearing the same unicorn T-shirt and the same jeans. Apparently they had planned the matching outfits in advance, and it was all part of our weird freakish adventure. I insisted on leaving the house at 9:00 A.M. My plan was to be on the highway while my teammates were running, and then call to hear the results as soon as we got to Storybook Land. But Chenguang had a spider bite that wouldn’t stop itching, so we had to stop at a Walgreens to get Benadryl. This set us back a half hour and we didn’t cross the Walt Whitman Bridge until nine thirty, didn’t merge onto the Atlantic City Expressway until nine forty-five. There were three lanes of cars hell-bent for the Jersey shore at eighty miles an hour. I had the windows rolled down and Q102 turned up loud so I wouldn’t have to hear Beth and Chenguang giggling in the backseat. They chattered nonstop, they were constantly interrupting and talking over each other. My phone was resting on the console between the front seats. I had it charging in the cigarette lighter adapter. Over the music, I could hear the chirp of an incoming text message—and then another and another. I knew it was likely my friend Lacey, who never sent one text when five would suffice. The lane ahead of me was clear. I looked down at my phone, at the incoming notifications

scrolling up my screen:



you wont believe who placed 3rd

The clock on the dash read 9:58. I realized that the girls’ race must have ended and Lacey was dutifully sending me the results. I checked the road again, then lifted the phone with one hand, entered my password, and carefully typed my reply: tell me.

There were three blinking dots on the side of the screen, signaling that Lacey was typing a response. I remember Ed Sheeran on the radio singing about the castle on the hill. And I remember glancing into the rearview mirror. There was an SUV tailgating me, the guy was right up on my bumper, and without really thinking, I accelerated, to put a little distance between us. Through the mirror I saw Beth and Chenguang sharing a single strand of gummi spaghetti. They were eating it from both ends like the dogs in Lady and the Tramp. They were giggling like lunatics, and I remember thinking: What the hell is wrong with them? How is this normal teenage behavior? And then the phone pulsed in my palm, signaling that Lacey had replied.

And then it was Wednesday and I woke up in a hospital in Vineland, New Jersey. My left leg was broken, I had three cracked ribs, and my body was tethered to half a dozen monitors and machines. My mother was sitting beside my bed, clutching a spiralbound notebook. I tried to sit up but I couldn’t move. I was so confused. She started saying things that didn’t make sense. There was a bicycle on the expressway. Some family was hauling beach gear on the back of their SUV, and then a mountain bike came loose, and all the cars swerved to avoid it. I said, “Where’s Beth?” and her face just collapsed. And that’s when I knew.

The driver in front of me broke his collarbone. Everyone in the SUV behind me had various minor injuries. Chenguang walked away from the accident without a scratch. My sister was the only fatality, but doctors said I was a close runner-up. Everyone was quick to say that I shouldn’t blame myself, that I didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone blamed the family with the mountain bike. A few police officers came to see me in the hospital, but there was never any real kind of investigation. At some point during the barrel roll my cell phone went out the window. Either it was pulverized by the crash, or it vanished in the tall purple

wildflowers growing on the side of the highway. I never found out who placed third.



After two weeks I left the hospital with a new prescription for OxyContin to use “as needed for pain,” but I felt pain around the clock, every day, from the moment I woke up until the minute I collapsed into bed. The pills blunted it a little and I’d beg the doctors to refill the prescriptions—just to get me through Halloween, through Thanksgiving, through Christmas—but by February I was walking fine and they cut me off.

The hurting was worse than anything I’d ever experienced. That’s what people don’t understand about OxyContin—or at least, we didn’t really understand it back then. Over several months, the drug had completely rewired my brain, hijacking more and more of my pain receptors, and now I needed OxyContin simply to exist. I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or focus in class. And no one warned me this was going to happen. No one told me to expect a struggle.

This is when I started leaning on my classmates—asking them to snoop in their bathrooms, in their parents’ bedrooms. You would be shocked by how many people have OxyContin in their homes. And when those sources finally dried up, I had a friend with a boyfriend who knew a guy. Buying Oxy from a dealer is a pretty easy thing to rationalize. These were, after all, the very same pills my doctors had required me to take. I was buying medicine, not drugs. But the markup was outrageous, and within a month I had depleted all my savings. I spent three miserable days suffering from cold sweats and nausea before one of my new pill-seeking friends introduced me to a cheaper and more sensible alternative.

Heroin is such a big scary word but it feels like Oxy at a fraction of the price. You just have to get past any

squeamishness regarding needles. Fortunately, there were plenty of YouTube videos to help me along—tutorials (ostensibly for diabetics) showing how to find a vein and how to gently draw back the plunger at just the right moment, to make sure you’ve made contact with the bloodstream. And once I figured that out, everything turned from bad to shit.

I finished high school, barely, thanks to sympathetic teachers who felt sorry for me. But all the coaches understood what was happening, and somehow Penn State weaseled out of their offer. They blamed the car accident and my injuries; they said no amount of physical therapy would have me ready by fall, and I don’t remember being disappointed. I don’t even remember getting the news. By the time they reached out to my mother, I was already spending my nights in Northern Liberties, crashing on the sofa of my new friend Isaac, who happened to be thirty-eight years old.

There was a long stretch after high school where I lived primarily to take drugs, and to obtain money to buy more drugs—any kind of drugs. If Oxy and heroin were unavailable, I’d sample anything on the menu. My mother spent a great deal of time and money trying to help me, but I was young and pretty and she was old and broke and fat; she didn’t stand a chance. One day she got on the 17 bus and found herself having a heart attack; she almost died before the ambulance got her to the hospital. And I didn’t even know until six months later, until I landed in rehab and tried calling my mother to tell her the good news. She just assumed I wanted money and hung up.

I called back a couple more times, but she never answered, so I left these long rambling voice mails, confessing that the accident was all my fault and apologizing for everything. By this point I was living at Safe Harbor and completely sober but of course she didn’t believe me. wouldn’t have believed me, either. Finally one

day this man answered the phone. He said his name was Tony and he was a friend of my mother’s, and she didn’t want to hear from me anymore. And the next time I called, the number was disconnected.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in two years. I’m not really sure what happened to her. Still, I know I have many, many reasons to be thankful. I’m grateful that I never got HIV or hepatitis. I’m grateful I was never raped. I’m grateful to the Uber driver who revived me with Narcan after I passed out in the backseat of her Prius. I’m grateful to the judge who sent me to rehab instead of prison. And I’m grateful I met Russell, that he agreed to sponsor me and motivated me to start running again. I never would have come this far without his help.

Adrian doesn’t interrupt my story with questions. He just lets me talk and talk until I can finally get to my main point: “I’m always going to feel guilty about what happened. Everyone blames the driver with the mountain bike. But if I had been paying attention—”

“You don’t know that, Mallory. Maybe you could have swerved out of the way, or maybe not.”

But I know that I’m right. I’ll always know I’m right.

If I went back in time and did everything over, I would just change lanes or cut the wheel or slam on the brakes and everything would still be okay.

“We used to share a bedroom, did I mention that already? We slept in bunkbeds and we hated it, we complained to our mother all the time. We told her we were the only kids on our block who had to share a room, and it wasn’t even true! So anyway, after the accident, the day I left the hospital, my mother drove me home and I went upstairs and—” And I can’t even describe the rest. I can’t tell him how the room was too quiet without Beth, how I couldn’t sleep without the sounds of her breathing and her rustling sheets.

“It must be hard,” Adrian says.

“I miss her so much. Every day. Maybe that’s why I lied to you, Adrian, I don’t know. But I swear I never lied about anything else. I didn’t lie about my feelings and I didn’t lie about the pictures. I have no memory of drawing them. But I guess I must have. I know it’s the only logical explanation. I’m leaving Spring Brook on Monday. I’m going to live with my sponsor for a couple weeks. Try to get my head screwed on right. I’m sorry for being such a psycho.”

We’ve reached the part of the conversation where I hope Adrian will say something—maybe not “I forgive you,” I know that’s asking for too much, but at least some acknowledgment that I’ve just bared my soul, that I’ve shared a story I’ve never shared to anyone outside of an NA meeting.

Instead, he stands and says, “We should get going.”

We walk across the grass toward the parking lot. There are three little boys playing next to Adrian’s truck, pointing finger-guns and firing imaginary bullets. As we get closer, they all sprint across the asphalt parking lot, whooping and hollering and waving their arms like maniacs. They remind me of the boys at the Big Playground. They’re all around five or six years old and they’re nothing like quiet and introspective Teddy, always reaching for his picture books and sketch pads.

Adrian doesn’t say anything until we’re inside his truck. He starts the engine and turns on the air-conditioning but doesn’t shift into drive. “Listen, when I left your house yesterday, I was pretty pissed off. Not because you lied to me—that was bad enough. But you lied to my parents and all their friends. It’s really embarrassing, Mallory. I don’t know how I can ever tell them.”

“I know, Adrian. I’m sorry.”

“But here’s the thing: After I left your house yesterday, I couldn’t go back home. My parents knew all about our date and I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to tell them it

was a bust. So instead I went to the movies. This new Marvel thing was playing and it seemed like a good way to kill some time. I actually stayed and watched it twice, so I could get home after midnight. And when I finally went upstairs to my bedroom, this was waiting on my desk.”

He reached across the front seat and opened the glove box, revealing a sheet of paper covered in dark pencil.



“Now you want to talk about feeling crazy? I guess it’s possible you sneaked into my house and found my bedroom and left this drawing on my desk while my parents were home all night? I guess it’s also possible that five-year-old Teddy sneaked into my house? Or his parents? But I don’t think so, Mallory.” Adrian shakes his head. “I think the most likely explanation is that you’ve been right all along. Anya is drawing these pictures. And she wants me to know you’re telling the truth.”

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