I remember the day I found out about Mom’s cancer.
My day at school had been good. More than good, actually. I was excited to share the news with her. She was going to be so proud of me for how well I did. How well we did. After all, we’d spent the night working on the project together, finishing all the little details that made it perfect.
The walk back to the apartment was serene. Peaceful. Birds were singing their harmonious tunes, breathing life into the cobblestone landscape of inner-city Carmsborough. People young and old were sitting on the cement steps of their houses and apartments, singing, playing, knitting. Living.
A tune was stuck in my head. It was one of Giraffe’s most popular hits of the year, which the radio on our counter at home played nonstop. It became the ambience music of my trip home.
It was a Tuesday. I only remember that because my last class of the day was gym class, and we’d had a fun round of four-corner dodgeball that ended with the bell. I wouldn’t normally participate, but something was in the air—the spring air, which whistled through the stone alleys and along the tall buildings. Trees were in full bloom, their green hues as dark as ever. Bursting white clouds blanketed the sky, contrasting against the deep blue signature of the time of year. A cloudship here and there soared by.
I had a little hop to my step as I climbed the stairs of my apartment complex all the way to the fourth floor. They were tall and creaky, having been made before standardization, but I never minded. It was a healthy workout for my trip home.
I opened the door to our apartment and made my presence known. Though she was usually at work, Mom had some sort of appointment with her doctor that day, which meant a much-needed break was in store for her. I entered the living room and spotted her on the couch, using our coffee table as a desk to write on a piece of paper. Not paying her much attention, I moved to the kitchen to dig out an afternoon snack.
“You’re never gonna believe it, Mom, but we got the highest score on the project of the entire class. Mrs. Westernight was impressed. Thanks for staying up all night to work with me on it. You really didn’t have to.”
I snagged an apple from our fruit bowl and turned to our small pantry for dinner ideas. “Had fun in gym today, too. We played more dodgeball, and I did as good as usual. But I tried today, and honestly, that’s asking a lot. We also read Of Mice and Men in English, which wasn’t as great, but next week we’re beginning our poetry unit.”
Mom hadn’t responded to any of my conversation, so I assumed whatever she was writing had something to do with work. It seemed like every couple of days she would bring her suitcase home and work until bedtime.
I grabbed a few chunky potatoes from the sack in the pantry, made sure they were bud-less, and set them on the counter to hunt for our main course of the night.
“Whatcha workin’ on, Mom? Your boss trying to get you to work on your day off, too?” I picked up my apple and took another bite. Finally, she looked at me, tears flowing down her cheeks. Her bottom lip quivered in the same way it always does when her heart’s been shattered.
I remember assuming she was thinking about Dad again. I was too young to remember him leaving us. It was in this same apartment that Mom discovered he had left us to go to the United States. Occasionally, something would trigger a thought or memory, and on especially emotional days, there was no stopping her floodgates from opening.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
She beckoned me over with both arms, tilting her head to the floor. I sat beside her, and she wrapped her arms around me tightly. I remained motionless. Whatever it was, she would get it out of her system soon, and in half an hour we would be laughing and eating our dinner of mashed potatoes and… well, something else.
Maybe it was gonna be a steak day. We still had a few cheap cuts in our freezer hiding under all the TV dinners, and if I started thawing them within the next twenty minutes, they’d be ready by the time six o’clock rolled by.
I remember thinking the exact words, “As long as she wraps this up, at least.”
When she let go of me, her tears didn’t stop. She was shaking. Something was seriously wrong. I was close to crying, too, despite having no idea what was going on. I’m not sure if it was empathy or sympathy, or even somehow understanding that the words about to come out of her mouth were going to change our lives forever.
“Doc says I’ve got cancer.”
It took four seconds for her words to process in my head. I stared at her with wide eyes. My grip on the half-eaten apple weakened, and the simple fruit fell to the carpet.
“What?” My voice shook.
“It was… uh… just a regular checkup, and… and he said, ‘Well, now don’t that look odd,’ and I said, ‘Well, now don’t what look odd, Doc?’ And so he ran a few tests, and… Oh my God, Luna girl, your mom’s got cancer.”
The living room around me fell apart, like a freshly completed puzzle going in for some glue that gets flipped too carelessly and slides off the cardboard, fragmenting into the same mess it started as.
“What?” I said again, unable to piece together anything else. “That can’t be right. The doc could be wrong, right? That can’t be right.”
“He’s running some more tests, and we’ll find out by Friday, but there’s no denying the lump he spotted. Said it may be metastatic, whatever that means.”
We didn’t have a steak-and-potatoes dinner that night. Or the next night. Or the night after that.
The results came in early Friday morning. Neither of us had gone to school or work, unable to cope with the looming diagnosis and the anxiety that came with it. Why should we pretend like everything was normal? There was a good chance things would never be again.
When the paperboy arrived with his satchel, we were already waiting on the front steps for the delivery. The wind was a bit stronger that day, threatening to sweep us off the concrete staircase. He handed us our mail and went inside to deliver the rest to the front desk.
The tall stairs to the apartment were an inconvenience. We were both huffing for air at the top, our legs having carried us up the four flights a little too quickly. Then, we sat at the coffee table, nervous.
Metastatic Breast Cancer.
I suppose not all of those words need capitalized, but that’s how the doctor wrote it, and quite fittingly, I’d say. It’s imposing, it’s interrupting, and it’s terminal. At least, that’s also how the doctor wrote it, unless we tried chemotherapy. And seeing as how it had spread to her brain, it was going to be too expensive for our bare-bones insurance to cover.
Metastatic Breast Cancer That Spread To The Brain.
Treatment That Costs Ten-Thousand Dollars.
I called the school later that morning using our dingy home phone to tell them I would be dropping out of school to work. Mom and I weakly argued, but in the end, we both knew that if she wanted any sort of chance at treatment, we’d both have to be in a full-time job.
A weekend of scouring the Commerce District for anyone willing to hire a twelve-year-old illegally later, I landed at the rusty doorsteps of Cheapskate Chad’s scrapyard. My rate? A dollar a day. Well under minimum wage, but it’s not like I could do a whole lot. I’m not supposed to be working in the first place.
We crunched numbers, and by the time October reared its head, we’d have enough money to get her the treatment she needed. Still, April to October was a long time, and we couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong in the meantime. We didn’t even know if we had that long to begin with.
April turned to May, and May turned to June. My birthday came and passed, receiving a passing comment and a hug along the way, but nothing more.
The days at work were not good. They were long and taxing. Still, I would walk home, dollar in my pocket, eager to spend the night with Mom. Replacing the radio on the kitchen counter was a jar of the contributions, a visual marker of our progress.
Walking back to the apartment was grueling. The trip was half an hour each way and involved crossing busy roads and people who wouldn’t look my way if I were royalty. The birds were fighting the oppressive heat as much as I was, and their harmonious tunes rang dull in the vast, light-blue sky. The cobblestone streets of Carmsborough seemed empty. The staircase was the last obstacle in a long day, hoping to drain me of every last breath.
One night, Mom surprised me with steak and potatoes, as well as a box of minute-serve rice. With the money we’d earned so far, as well as the sum already in her bank account, we were halfway to our goal. The work was relentless, so the occasion was signified with half of our steak rations, slightly freezer-burned by this point.
But we didn’t care. We laughed, we talked, we cried. A lot of that had been going around, but hope was on the horizon, and although our routine was rough, it was done with purpose. I remember ending the night with a deep talk about the future. I was going to be a poet, and Mom was going to climb the ranks in her menial office job. When I left to head to bed, Mom was putting a stack of envelopes in the bill box hanging over the microwave.
The months blurred forward, but the temperature had stayed largely the same. The grass was yellower, and the wind was harsher. The same walk that had been a chore in June was seared into my legs. Air distorted above the cobblestone roads, baking all life that stepped through it.
I took heavy bounds up the staircase to our apartment, weighed down by tired feet and aching joints. Nonstop physical labor was taking its toll. A few steps later, I was at our door, ready for another quiet night at home.
The day’s snack was going to be the same as it had been for nearly half a year: saltines and tap water. I passed Mom on the couch, napping following a hard day at work. Her breathing was deep and slow.
I remember thinking I’d wait until dinner to wake her. I’d get it all prepared and ready, and as long as she hadn’t stirred in the meantime, I would welcome her with something a little nicer than a TV dinner. Maybe I’d crack into one of the green bean cans we’d bought last week.
I left to go to my room for a moment to switch into cleaner clothes, and considered a shower. How long had it been since I’d had one? It wasn’t the day before. I decided it was a good idea, and promptly stepped into the bathroom.
When I got out of the shower, I threw the dirty clothes into my hamper and made my way to the kitchen, ready to cook something. Only three or four minutes into meal prep did I notice Mom wasn’t breathing anymore.
Maybe if I hadn’t taken a shower, I would’ve been in the room when it happened. Maybe I could’ve stopped it. Maybe I could’ve shaken her awake. Or helped her somehow.
The rest of the day is mostly just a blur. A traumatic ink imprint on the pages of my life, but the secretary accidentally smudged the stamp.
I remember shaking her, trying to get her to wake up, but by then it was too late. There was no knowing how long she’d been gone by the time I’d noticed.
I remember calling the police, and the paramedics, and the long-untouched sticky note of my dad’s phone number on the fridge. Two of the three answered my call. Neither were my dad.
I remember riding with my mom in the back of an ambulance to the hospital. They declared her dead on the couch, but still had to bring her in for paperwork.
I remember being forced home later that night by the doctors. It was a fifteen-minute walk, but the road in front of me stretched on for forever. Every building I trudged by felt a mile long. The warm night was a spit in my face.
I remember gazing at the tall steps of the staircase. It was oppressive.
I remember breaking down at the front door to our apartment, afraid to open it. Would I see her in the living room? Was her imprint still in the couch, sprawled out, unmoving? Did she return as a ghost to lament or curse me?
None of those things happened. Instead, the first thing I did was count the money in the jar. Roughly 550 one-dollar bills were jam-packed in, with a few random bills added to the mix. Numbers were jotted haphazardly on a torn-out page of notebook paper beside it, displaying Mom’s own total: $8763.
We were less than a month away.
And if I’d made more than a dollar a day, we might’ve made it. If I were making two a day, she would still be here. If I were making minimum wage, we would’ve been there ages ago.
I remember being in bed the day of the funeral and not wanting to be alive. I remember wanting to fall back asleep and to never wake up, like Mom did. We had never been all that religious, but I remember praying to God that the day would never continue. I even remember telling myself that my dad would be at the funeral, and he would take me to the United States with him. That he’d notice the three voicemails I’d sent him—one when she’d died, one when I’d been sent home by the doctors, and one when the date of the funeral had been set.
He never did, of course.
I was alone at her funeral, aside from the priest. Our exchange was awkward, and when he finished his funeral rites, he gave me a pat on the shoulder and left.
I made sure to get her a beautiful gravestone. It was an imposing black obsidian marker, with her name engraved in white. In full, it read, “Felicity Wells: Devoted Mother and Role Model. 1934-1972.”
I couldn’t bear to look at it.
I spent an hour crying quietly in the graveyard. Even reading her name was too much. I never got to say goodbye. Eventually, I stepped out and started my way back to the apartment.
Living there hadn’t been the same since. And, to be fair, why should it? The sole reason I called it home was gone. I had as much attachment to that fourth-floor blunder as I did my own absent father.
But it still hurt to climb the tall steps only to find I was in the middle of being evicted.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. The party of three stopped moving things to watch the twelve-year-old standing in the doorway.
“Ma’am, I hate to say it, but you’re being evicted right now. You haven’t paid rent in months. You’re lucky you’ve gotten away with it for this long, but the boss wasn’t having it anymore.”
“Wait, what do you mean? Mom’s been paying the rent.”
“We found about three months’ worth of rent in a jar on the table, which we are legally allowed to claim, but otherwise, we have to kick you out. Sorry, kid.”
“No, you can’t do that! She’s been paying! The statements are right here, in the bill box—”
I opened the box and was met with four unopened bills with the word “OVERDUE” stamped in bright red letters on the front of each. She’d been saving more money by not paying the bills. Even if I’d been making minimum wage, if she’d paid the bills, we weren’t ever going to make it.
“Mom would never stop paying. Why did she stop paying?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, kid, but the two of you need to leave. The contract’s terminated.”
“Wait. I can pay. I’ll pay the monthly rent. How much is it?”
“It’s done, kid. The apartment’s already been leased to another family. Besides, you’re not even an adult. You can’t provide an income, let alone $150 a month. Now, scram. I don’t want to force you, but I will if you make me.”
Tears were threatening my eyelids again, but I kept composure until I made it to the apartment lobby. I remember people walking by, not caring about the pre-teen having a mental breakdown in the middle of their walking space. I remember the CB Moving Limited truck idling outside the complex entrance and the men that drove it.
My next stop was the bank. I was told I had to wait until I was eighteen to inherit my dead mother’s account, but that it would be safe and sound where I left it.
That, I think, was the defining moment. Or, rather, the last defining moment.
For half a year, I fought against multiple setbacks and challenges, but being told the money we worked so hard to earn was completely off-limits for six more years was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
That was the last day I could run at my problems and fight them head-on. From then on, I’ve always been Luna on the run. Working under S seemed like it was going to break my curse, but being confronted with the same people who got me into this mess to begin with sapped it all out of me.
I sit down in the grass in front of the gray building. A brief respite of icy rain trickles in from the ocean, washing the freezing, unforgiving landscape of Carmsborough in December. The streets are empty, and the sun has disappeared completely under the horizon. A shrouded black sky looms above.
My hands idly pick at the bullet lodged in my shoe. These men have wronged me more than once. Bijabers has wronged me more than once. Slaphand has wronged me more than once.
“Hey, boss,” I say into the wristwatch. “I realize it’s pretty much bedtime, but I’ve got eyes on one of their bases of operations. I figure tonight’s as good as any to drop in and get some work done.”
A short moment passes. “Good luck, Luna,” he replies. “Try not to stir things up too much.”
I can’t help but feel like Mom’s watching over me right now. I promise I’ll make you proud. These bad men don’t stand a chance.
- United States
- Michael Heckman
Michael has always had a love for writing that stems from writing a short story about turtles on his family computer in second grade. From there, he never stopped writing, and wrote his first ten-thousand-word book in the third grade, igniting his passion for storytelling.
Now, the only thing stopping Michael from writing more is his schedule. Ideas like LUNA ON THE RUN and THE GHOST OF THE HINDENBURG keep him up at night, plotting his creative path forward.