The money was safe.
Leanne let out a breath of relief and screwed the lid back to the jar, and returned it to its hiding place behind the toilet cistern. She knew that Justin would never find it there, she couldn’t think of any circumstance when he might be reaching around down there – he had never lifted a finger around the house. ‘Unless,’ she thought to herself bitterly, ‘he got so desperate for a drink that he’d reach down here for one of the cleaning detergents’.
She heard the rattling slam of the front door and knew at once that he was in a foul mood. She understood every one of his petty mannerisms and had learned to read the smallest of signs. She stood up quickly, steadying herself with one hand against the sink as her head spun from the sudden movement, and straightened out her dress with the other. She could hear Justin rifling through the kitchen cupboards, presumably looking for something salty and fatty to go with his beer. Their home was a small mobile trailer and every little shudder and shake could be felt throughout the whole place. She took in a deep breath and opened the bathroom door.
‘Hi honey, are you ok?’ she asked him gently, her southern inflection making her voice seem to hum.
‘God dammit, Leanne,’ he barked at her, ‘why do you have to keep all this crap in here? I can’t find a goddam thing.’ She gave a weak smile and brushed a bleached strand of hair from her face.
‘Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get what you’re lookin’ for.’ She answered breezily, suppressing her irritation.
She had gone through a whole range of emotions with Justin over the years. She vaguely recalled that there had been a romantic idealism, the dreams that come in the early days, when she thought anything was possible. But those were so distant, she could remember more clearly the disappointment, anger, betrayal, fear, hatred. Now she felt empty, she had expended all her feelings and now went through her days simply by a deep-rooted routine.
She had one point of hope, one focus that kept her going. Australia. Ever since she had read a travel piece on Australia in a salon magazine she had fantasised about escaping to the other side of the world. She had heard that you could live well on American dollars there, and the sun shone all year round. She would secretly gaze at the magazine picture that she had torn out and kept. The pristine white beach seemed to beckon to her, curving round the azure sea and lined with palm trees. Justin would never find her there – if he even bothered to look for her. The thing that made her saddest of all was not that he could be cruel, that he got mad at her for the smallest thing – it was that she knew how little he even cared any more. She suspected that he’d fly off into a rage, throw some things around, get mighty drunk and then forget all about her. Besides, he didn’t even have a passport.
She knew all about the flights. It would cost a thousand dollars just to get there. And if you wanted any chance of being allowed to stay, you needed cash. Ever since the time he had raised his hand against her in an alcohol-drenched anger, she had been putting aside whatever money she could get hold of, building her pot of money until the day she had the money to escape him, start afresh in a new place where nobody would know her or judge her. Leanne had become an expert on making savings. She had used every coupon that she found in discarded magazines and from unwanted flyers trodden onto the parking lot floor. They had little money, but she made it go as far as she could, and had started a decent side line in painting nails at a girlfriend’s beauty salon. He hadn’t ever hit her again though, and she sometimes wondered if she had overreacted and was being crazy. We all lose it every now and then, don’t we? But she knew she was a prisoner here, regardless of whether he hit her or just crushed her with his bitterness.
She made sure that he had everything that he wanted and he had settled in for the rest of the day on the couch, she made her excuses and left him alone with the television. She went to the beauty parlour for her afternoon appointments, carrying her heavy nail-care case that pulled painfully at her shoulder. Her eyes were cast at the ground in front of her, a cautious habit to prevent her rickety heels from catching in gaps in the paving. As she walked towards the salon she realised that there was a twenty dollar bill trapped under the wheel of a car jut in front of her. Looking around, she crouched down and gently eased it out from under the rubber. This was it. She had only been eighteen dollars short of her goal. This money was her ticket out of here, and she could even buy a soda for the journey. She gave a short laugh, a burst of exhilaration as she realised that she had finally reached her goal. It had taken her fourteen years to put this money aside, fourteen years inhaling vile acetone fumes, of filing abrasive sticks against wealthy ladies’ brittle nails, asking dumb questions and humming quietly as she painted layer after layer of acrylic onto hardened human cells. And there were the bargains that she sought with a zeal that many would have thought impossible. The cheap vinegar and elbow grease instead of the latest household products. The patched up, second hand clothes, the years of enduring niggling pains and aches instead of splashing out on medicines. Now she was free.
When she returned to their trailer it was already starting to get dark. Justin wasn’t where she had left him, and for a moment she wondered if he had left. Then she heard the sound of clumsy movement in the bathroom, and saw a dark shape breaking the shaft of light that came from under the door. She held her breath, not wanting to make a sound. Had he found the money? What would he do? She tiptoed through the trailer, and softly stepped into the bedroom to put away her case. Suddenly he gave a yell that made her start. She heard him open the bathroom door and call to her.
‘Hey, Leanne, didn’t you hear me? I asked you to come here.’
She looked at him from the darkness of the bedroom through wide, frightened eyes. Without thinking, she stepped towards him.
‘What is it, Justin?’ she asked quietly, looking at the peeling lino floor by his feet.
‘I uh,’ he said quietly, ‘I had that doctor check up today.’ Leanne finally exhaled, closing her eyes in a moment of relief. Perhaps he hadn’t found it after all.
‘How’d it go?’ she asked timidly, trying to look past him to her hiding place, to see if he had uncovered her secret.
‘It ain’t good.’ He sighed. ‘The doc said a lot of fancy words, but the truth of the matter’s that I’m done for.’
She jolted upright, her frame stiffened, her eyes shining in full attention.
‘What’day mean, done for?’ she asked, panic in her voice.
‘He reckons that my liver’s done for, and the only thing that’ll save me is a transplant. Do you have any idea how much one of those cost? Dammit, why didn’t we get healthcare.’
She hesitated. ‘How much does it cost?’
‘Why?’ he asked with a harsh laugh, ‘you got a pot of gold sitting under your ass? It’s more than twenty thousand dollars, Leanne. We’d have to rob a bank for that kinda money.’ She looked at him, his face lined with troubles, small red veins crawling across his cheeks. She thought of Australia, that distant paradise, a new beginning.
‘I can get you that money.’ She said quietly.
He looked at her first with an angry incredulity. His face gradually softened as he regarded her serious expression, realising that there was something in her eyes that glimmered true.
‘Where can you get that sort of money from?’
‘I know someone. I mean, I can get a favour. Does it matter? Call the doctor now and tell him that you can afford it, make an appointment. I’ll take care of the rest.’
She had gone in with him for the operation. He hadn’t asked her to, but she knew that all people are like children when they’re afraid, and sometimes we all need someone’s hand to hold. She could leave now though, she reasoned to herself. Walking out on her husband might not seem so bad if she did it immediately after giving him a twenty thousand dollar ticket to life. ‘How angry could he be, really,’ She wondered? ‘It’s not as though I left him to die.’ But she knew that she couldn’t leave until she knew that the was going to be alright, that the operation was a success. She realised that if his doctor’s appointment had been a few days later, if the results had been delayed for some reason, then she would have already left him for good, and he would never had been able to pay for the operation. She shuddered at the thought.
She returned to the hospital a few days later. The operation had gone well and he had come to. She went to see how he was doing, but this time she packed as many of her clothes as she could into a fraying laundry bag. This would be goodbye. She didn’t need Australia, she thought to herself. She could be two towns over and he’d never think to look for her. She could still escape.
Justin seemed smaller, reduced somehow, when she walked into his room, and his skin had a developed a greyish-yellow tone. Strips of light broke through the blinds behind his head and illuminated the dancing dust in the air. He was wearing a thin pale green hospital gown with a plastic tube jutting from his forearm. His appearance frightened her, but she tried to conceal her fear. He smiled weakly at her, his head lolled at an uncomfortable looking angle against the pillow.
‘Hey, sugar-pie.’ He said softly, his voice rasping. She was taken aback – he hadn’t called her that in years. She had slipped her bulky bag in the corner where she knew he couldn’t see it. She looked at him, vulnerable and weak. His hair lay lank on his narrow forehead and she thought for the first time about the skull beneath, the hard white flinty bone protecting that soft, spongy football of thoughts and feelings. She gave him a small, awkward smile.
‘Let me take a look at you.’ He said in a rasping voice. He took her hand and held it up, her arm outstretched at her side. He seemed to take her in as though he had never seen her before, and didn’t know what to make of her. You’re a good woman, Leanne. You’ve been real good to me.’
‘Of course,’ she replied, trying to make her voice light and breezy. ‘You’re my guy.’ She looked down and tried to keep that smile on her face. He smiled briefly, and then let his head lean back into the pillow and roll slightly to one side.
‘I don’t know where you found that money, but I’m sure glad you did.’ She watched him close his eyes, his chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm, and let his hand fall gently by his side.
Once she was certain that he was asleep she picked up her battered laundry bag, crammed full of her belongings, and walked out of the hospital. She stood at the bus stand, trying to decide where she should go now. She could take the next Greyhound to some other town, start afresh right now. She had her nail-care case, she could rent a room for cheap and earn some money doing what she had done all along. Maybe even leave a note with a nurse, so that he knew that she wasn’t coming back. ‘Justin can cope without me,’ she thought to herself. ‘Maybe he’d even get some sort of disability payout, if he couldn’t work anymore?’ She wondered to herself. She tried to imagine him, in the state he had been in at the hospital, moving around the trailer. Getting to the bathroom, trying to fix up some food. Those frail, sallow hands trying to use a can opener. She closed her eyes, as though the images in her mind could be expelled with the light, that she could block out her own mind. She knew that he had never had to take care of himself, without her he wouldn’t know how to do anything. What good was her money if she left him helpless? She boarded the bus heading back home, scraping together the change from her purse for the ticket. If I could do it once, I can do it again. After all, she asked herself, what was fourteen years? She resolved, ‘I’ll just start over.’