Charlotte, Joaquin, and Ginny stare at the envelope laying on the splintered picnic table. It’s nothing special. Just the plain white legal-size kind you can buy at any grocery or office supply store. Fifty or one hundred to a box for less than five dollars.
“Where do you think it came from?” Charlotte asks, the ends of her wavy blond hair skim the envelope, and her torn jeans dig into her stomach as she leans forward.
Ginny grins and points to the bush where they found the envelope.
“Seriously?” Joaquin asks.
But he knows this is her attempt at a joke. She’s freaking out. And why wouldn’t she? This isn’t something you drop and walk away from. Somebody somewhere is freaking out about losing it.
Joaquin picks it up and peeks inside for the fourth time. Twenties, fifties, hundreds. He doesn’t count it. They already counted it four times. Once each and once together. And each time they came up with the same amount.
Fifty thousand dollars.
“Okay, fine.” Ginny says. “Gangsters?”
“Like the robbing the stagecoach kind? What are you from the 1920’s?” Joaquin asks.
“Then the Mafia,” she says.
“Try businessmen and politicians,” Charlotte declares.
Ginny twists the end of her t-shirt. “What if it’s someone’s life savings?”
Joaquin frowns. Okay, joke time is over.
In their silence, they hear parents yell for their kids to pack up and kids yell for more time.
“Remember when we used to beg for more time?” Charlotte asks. “Like two minutes on the swing or two more slides down the slide.”
“And a turn as the ship’s captain since you always hogged the helm.” Ginny tucks an auburn curl behind her ear, sticks her tongue out at Charlotte, then looks back at the plastic and wood pirate ship. She sighs.
“Hanging out here wasn’t too bad.” Charlotte rubs the table that was old and splintered even back then.
When they graduated elementary school, they left the swings and ship behind and moved to the picnic table. The games they played grew as they did. Go Fish to Headbands to Pokémon. Ginny, once a skinny girl with freckles, is now an undernourished seventeen-year-old who hides her true self under makeup. As a kid, Joaquin painted the world one brightly colored shirt at a time, but now prefers the anonymity of gray. And Charlotte, the muscular tomboy who always wanted to be the leader, softened physically but hardened mentally.
“Hey, who’s up for a game of two truths and a lie?” Ginny asks.
They jumped in on the fad when they got into high school, but after a few rounds, it had gotten too real. Their truths were never true, and their lies were never lies.
She shakes her head. “Never mind.”
The park is almost empty, and the light blue sky is darkening to navy. They should be going too. Playtime isn’t fun anymore with homework looming, tests to study for, and early morning alarms.
But they can’t leave fifty thousand dollars.
“What should we do with it?” Charlotte asks.
Everyone fantasizes about spending found money, but some fantasies are too scary to share. Even with best friends. Especially when they mean admitting lies are really truths.
“Why don’t we just run away,” Ginny says. “Forget school. Forget tests. Let’s go to Europe. The food. OMG! And booze. It would be like we’re already adults.”
Charlotte and Joaquin look up from the envelope.
“We’ll be different people.” Ginny sits up straighter. “I’m going to be a rom-com author. Semi-famous, bopping around to book clubs, talking to lonely ladies about sex fantasies involving the man who comes to fix the dishwasher.”
Charlotte nudges Joaquin. “I think she just admitted she’s a virgin.”
Joaquin’s chest tightens. He puts his head down.
“No comment,” Ginny says then turns to Joaquin. “Your turn. Who is your alter ego?”
He looks up. “I will be an avant-garde artist who hangs out in museums and coffee shops hoping to meet a fellow starving artist and fall in love. Just like in movies.”
“That’s not an alter ego. That’s your actual goal in life,” Charlotte says.
“Okay, fine. I’ll be an accountant. Is that different enough for you?”
“Yes, it is different,” Charlotte says, “but boring. No offense.”
The parking lot’s lights flick on. Ginny’s car is the only one left. Her phone vibrates, the screen illuminating their faces. She picks it up, reads the text, and moans. Mom.
“I have to go,” Ginny says. “I have tons of homework and we have midterms this week.” It’s funny how easily the lies slip out.
They look down at the envelope again.
“What are we going to do with this?” Charlotte asks. “One of us could take it home. Or we could split it.”
“It’s probably better to turn it into the police,” Joaquin says. “Don’t they try to find the person? Then if they don’t, we get it?”
“We can’t turn it into the police,” Charlotte says. “They’re not all on our side, you know. What if the ones we talk to say they’ll file the paperwork and look for the owner, but they really split it themselves?”
“Wouldn’t that be stealing?” Ginny asks.
“Really? You think the police are worried about stealing? They kill people, or haven’t you heard?”
Ginny puts her hand on Charlotte’s arm. “Hey, relax. I get it. Really. Okay, no police.”
Joaquin rubs his fingers over the envelope. “I can’t take it home. Any of it. My stepbrother, uh, he snoops in my room. If he found it, he’d take it. He takes. . .everything.” That’s as close as he can get to the truth.
“I can’t either,” Charlotte whispers.
Ginny shakes her head. “Well, you know my parents. They love to do things for me like clean my room.”
“Woe is you,” Joaquin teases.
“It’s hard to be me,” Ginny says and looks away. The truth is painful.
“Okay, here’s a crazy thought. What if we bury it?” Charlotte asks.
Joaquin and Ginny stare at her. Then their eyes shift to the bush.
“We’ll bury it deep, no one will find it,” Charlotte says. “That’ll give us time to figure out what to do with it. If we should try to find the owner or split it and each keep a third.”
Ginny grins. “Sounds like you’ve done this kind of thing before. Have experience burying incriminating evidence, do you?”
Charlotte’s muscles tense. Evidence?
Joaquin shifts in his seat and stares at the envelope.
Fifty thousand dollars.
He’s slim, has long legs, and is quick. A runner’s body. It would be easy for him to grab the envelope and run. Or he could tell his best friends the truth. Hey, let’s play a game.
Ginny snatches the envelope. “Well, let’s do it then.”
She grabs a discarded toy shovel, walks to the bush, and starts digging, her upper body covered by the leaves and branches. When the hole is deep enough, she drops the envelope in and covers it with dirt, leaves, and sticks.
“The money’s safe,” she says.
Truth or lie?
Charlotte gets out of Ginny’s car and waves to her and Joaquin as they drive away.
“What just happened?” she asks herself out loud. “Did we really find an envelope stuffed with money at the park?”
That’s where she had her first kiss, and where the three of them smoked cigarettes she stole from her parents. Neither of which rocked her world.
The event that fits that description is part of her lie. She crosses the yard to her front door and goes inside to face it.
The air is still, the living room lights are off, and it’s deathly quiet. That means her mom’s still at work and her dad’s. . .somewhere. She debates going straight to her room, but then catches mumbling coming from the kitchen. Charlotte follows the sound which becomes clearer and more familiar the closer she gets. Her hands grab the backpack straps and practically strangles them.
She stops in the kitchen doorway. The light above the stove is on, but other than that, it’s dark except for the glow of her dad’s laptop. He looks up, smiles, and presses a key on the keyboard which silences the cheers Charlotte knows are from a rally.
“Hi, sweetheart. How was school?” Her dad leans back in his chair and stretches his legs out.
“No luck on the job search?” she asks.
“Hi, Dad, how was your day?” He raises the octave of his voice to imitate the young girl she used to be.
She hates when he does that. She’ll never be that girl again, mainly because he’ll never be that dad again. Charlotte stands in the doorway, arms crossed, backpack digging into her shoulders.
“Fine. No, no luck today. Is that what you want to hear?” he asks.
“I want to hear you got a job,” she says. And that you’re sorry for shitting on democracy.
But when she finds him at the table watching hate-filled rallies, she knows neither is going to happen.
“How did we end up so different?” he asks. “We used to be the same. We used to be buds. I miss that.”
Charlotte studies her dad. Messy hair, day-old stubble, wrinkled T-shirt. The scent of chili wafts her way. She glances at the big silver pot simmering on the stove and wills her stomach to stay quiet. It would be nice to have dinner together. She misses their connection, the Friday night movies, and Saturday morning donuts. But that was before 2016.
And January sixth.
Her dad didn’t tell her where he was going, just said it was a business trip. He didn’t travel often, but enough that she didn’t question it. Her mom didn’t mention specifics either, just puttered around in the morning while Charlotte got ready for school. It was a normal day.
Even as her phone, and everyone else’s, began buzzing around one-fifteen she didn’t make the connection. It’s one thing to support a candidate, but what they were doing at the Capitol Building was horrible. Her dad was not that person.
When Charlotte burst through the front door of her house and ran to the family room, her mom was already glued to the TV, the riot happening right before their eyes.
“I can’t believe they climbed the walls,” Charlotte said. “And broke windows.”
She lowered herself onto the couch, feeling for the seat, because she couldn’t take her eyes from the screen. And that’s when she saw him.
She recognized his black wavy hair, bushy eyebrows, and tan skin immediately. It was a face she saw every day of her life. But there was more. He wore his navy blue puffy coat with the pin she got him for his birthday. The pin was their state, North Carolina, with home painted in the center. She told him no matter where they go, this will always be home.
And right above that pin was one that said MAGA.
A wave of nausea rolled over her. She grabbed the remote, hit rewind, and ran toward the screen. With her face inches from it, she replayed the scene of her dad inside the Capitol Building cheering and waving.
Charlotte glanced back at her mom whose legs were curled under her on the couch, a water glass on the table next to her.
“You knew?” Charlotte asked. “This is his business trip?”
“I guess you can look at it like the country’s business,” her mom said.
A window broke. Charlotte flinched. People cheered. She covered her ears.
“Honey, we can’t let them lie and cheat.”
Charlotte was speechless. She didn’t speak to her parents for days. When she finally did, it was only to make them see what her dad did at the Capitol was criminal. Literally. Vandalism, breaking and entering, assault. And murder. Then there were the arguments about democracy and the constitution that made her head hurt. She felt like the parent talking to kids stomping their feet.
It’s been more than a year. Her parents haven’t budged. And neither has she.
“I have to do homework,” Charlotte tells her dad.
She closes herself in her room, the place that has become her refuge, and unpacks her bag. She’ll never be able to focus on studying. All she can think of is what that day has done. Her dad used all their money for legal fees. He went to jail. He’s a convicted criminal. And she lied to her best friends about all of it.
Only in the privacy of her room does she tell herself two truths.
One. She’s angry and humiliated, and wants desperately to cry to Ginny and Joaquin, but she can’t find the words to tell them her dad did that. She’s afraid to let them come over in case her parents try to recruit them into their delusional cult, and lives in fear of her friends finding out and thinking she shares her parents’ beliefs. She even tossed her red Converse in the trash so no one would make assumptions about her loyalties.
Two. She knows she can never bring that envelope home.
Fifty thousand dollars.
Even one third of that would be dangerous in her parents’ hands. Her dad would use it for conspiracy theory cult membership dues, or worse, to fund an insane and completely illegal military exercise. Paying bills or paying back the college fund he depleted wouldn’t even cross their minds.
Charlotte fumbles unsuccessfully through homework then lies in bed, her eye twitching as she stares at the ceiling, the door, the window. She can’t forget that people died on January sixth. People were beaten, others committed suicide after the tragedy, and her parents aren’t going to do anything about it. They won’t even say sorry. But with that money, all of it, she can make a difference. Somehow, she can help people.
Joaquin still can’t believe it. Is it luck? Is there someone up there looking out for him? He gets out of Ginny’s car, waves goodbye, then glances at the sky for a miraculous sign from above. Okay, he doesn’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean the money isn’t real. It is. He held it in his hands. And now he’s obsessed with the possibilities. There are so many that, for once, it’s easy to breathe. That’s the kind of freedom fifty thousand dollars can bring.
Joaquin spins toward the house. Victor’s gray Honda Civic is parked in the driveway. The tightness in his chest returns. He forces air into his lungs, tightens his muscles, and takes a step toward the house.
“It’s Tuesday. Tuesdays are chess club,” Joaquin says out loud then opens the front door.
“You’re home.” His mom greets him in the entryway. She takes his hand and leads him toward the kitchen. “Practice went late?”
“Chess club. Then we got a snack.”
She grins with that mother smile. The one that says she’s proud of him for putting himself out there and that he will go far in life. Extracurricular activities and a social life, while still keeping up his GPA. She’s his biggest fan. Joaquin glances at her, the gray hair peeking through the dyed brown. Would she still feel that way if she knew the truth? His friends aren’t the only ones he lies to.
She’s not wrong. A kid who “puts himself out there” would be a sought-after applicant for many colleges. A great grade point average, so many extracurricular activities even the biggest over-achiever would be exhausted, and of course his family is from Cuba. That checked another box for colleges who claim to care about diversity.
Joaquin can’t bring himself to tell her it’s complete bullshit. A fabrication of the life he would have if he could focus on future instead of fearing the present and being haunted by the past.
“Come, dinner’s ready,” his mom says.
Joaquin lets her lead him toward the kitchen. The bottom half of a jean-clad leg and black Vans make his stomach revolt. He stops just before the doorway.
“I’m really not hungry. My snack was actually a cheeseburger and fries,” he says.
His mom frowns. “Well, come sit for a little. It’s rare everyone is home at the same time.”
Joaquin sighs and follows her to the table as she puts a small bowl of picadillo in front of him. If seeing shoes and half a leg made him sick, the whole body makes him feel like he swallowed slugs.
The shoes and jeans belong to Victor, his stepbrother. A twenty-two-year-old recent college grad who spends more time at home than in the apartment he shares with four people across town. Joaquin’s mom, Victor’s stepmom, describes him as athlete tall, charming, and currently in-between jobs. The unfortunate product of pandemic and inflation. Joaquin sees Victor as brutally strong, sinister, and manipulative.
Victor scoops the mixture of meat, green olives, and onions on his fork. He stops just before it reaches his mouth and catches Joaquin’s gaze.
“Hey J,” he says, then eats his food with ease. For him, chewing and swallowing are as easy as breathing. Both of which are impossible for Joaquin right now.
When he was eight and Victor was twelve, their parents got married and Victor tied an invisible rope around Joaquin’s chest. It’s been ten years and he hasn’t let it go. Not even when he’s at his apartment. During those times, there’s a little slack, enough for Joaquin to fill his lungs with clean air. But then Victor comes back and yanks the rope close until Joaquin is suffocating.
“How was school,” his stepfather asks.
“Good,” Joaquin chokes out.
“You’re not eating? It’s your mom’s specialty.” He winks as Joaquin’s mom swats her husband’s arm. It’s a common joke in the Mesa household since no part of cooking is Mom’s specialty. Her picadillo is usually dry and salty.
“He already ate,” she says.
Joaquin fades out of the conversation as the rope around him cinches tighter. He catches words like college and work, and he wonders how normalcy can exist when there are monsters everywhere. Overseas. In this country. In this very house. Or is this what normal is and Joaquin didn’t realize he’s supposed to accept them and learn to co-exist? They’re scary, but hey, that’s life.
No, that’s not true and Joaquin knows it. If it was, the monster wouldn’t have threatened him into silence. He would have left and not come back. But now, because of that envelope, Joaquin will be the one to leave.
Fifty thousand dollars.
A third would help him escape, but with the whole amount he could disappear.
Joaquin scoots his chair back. “I have homework.”
Without waiting for a comment or protest, he dumps his food in the garbage, puts his dish in the sink, and leaves the room.
In six months and ten days he’ll be eighteen. An adult. He’ll tell his parents he has a club meeting and not come back. It’s not the way he wants to do it, but what choice does he have? They’re happy and proud of him and love him. But would they if they knew the truth? That he’s weak and a failure?
He thought about staying through his senior year and graduating before leaving. That would be the logical plan. Start a new life moving forward instead of backward and having to finish high school later. But there’s no logic in any of this. Logic would say this would never happen in the first place.
Charlotte and Ginny will forgive him if he takes all the money. They’ve been friends almost their entire lives. Him saying it’s life or death should be enough. He hopes so. He doesn’t want to be alone. That terrifies him more than anything because it invites the monster.
A hand over his mouth. A body heavy on his. A whisper in his ear. That almost makes Joaquin laugh. It’s wasted energy for both of them. Joaquin hasn’t tried to scream in years. He stays still and quiet and lets Victor do whatever he wants.
Fifty thousand dollars.
No more living behind a locked bedroom door. No more fitful sleeps that don’t recharge his body. No more falling asleep in school or just getting by. Joaquin doesn’t even care about college. Not right now anyway. He just wants to sleep.
Ginny leaves Joaquin’s house and drives the two blocks to hers, careful not to go over the posted speed sign of twenty-five. Her right foot feels heavy on the gas pedal, but she tenses her leg to keep her foot in control. She doesn’t have time to be pulled over. Her to-do list is already too long.
AP history midterm tomorrow.
Physics the day after.
The SAT the week after that.
She feels it already. Her insides moving, running like they’re in a marathon.
“Relax,” she says out loud.
That’s supposed to make her feel better? Talking to herself out loud just reminds her to add checking her mental health to the list.
It feels like the night is half over when Ginny pulls into her driveway, which means she may have to pull an all-nighter. Her grade in history is good, but if she fails the test, she’ll have to be on guard the rest of the year. Okay, just the semester, but when the semesters are averaged together. . . Anyway, she has to do her part. That was the deal. She passes the test and Jeremy does the rest. A cute little nursery rhyme. Ginny laughs to herself, then sighs. Life is anything but cute.
As soon as she opens the door, her mom grabs her backpack.
“Hi, sweetie, how was school? Are you hungry? We’re just about to eat.”
The three words pile on top of her already long list. In her mind, it teeters. She tenses her muscles. It straightens itself out.
“Huh? What?” Ginny asks. “Oh, I have a test to study for. And I, uh, ate with Charlotte and Joaquin.” No need for her mom to worry.
Her mom unzips her backpack. “Do you have Tupperware or anything to be washed?”
Ginny shakes her head and takes the backpack back. And that’s why she couldn’t take the money home.
“I have to study.”
Ginny’s mom studies her and moves a strand of hair from her face. Can she see the truth?
“Okay,” her mom says. “Don’t stay up too long. You need to sleep as well as study.”
Without thinking, Ginny rubs her eye.
Is it that obvious she doesn’t sleep well? The makeup covering the dark circles under her eyes probably wore off hours ago.
“I won’t,” Ginny says as she’s walking down the hallway, head turned away so her mom won’t see the lie.
She closes her door and sinks onto her bed. The peach-colored comforter is plush and warm. It whispers to her to stretch her legs out, bury her cheek in the warmth. Ginny wants to. Oh, how she wants to. She does need sleep and could sleep for days.
But there are grades.
Technically, she doesn’t have to study for the SAT, but that does not mean she’s not freaking out about it.
“I gotcha covered,” Jeremy had told her as they sat in her car at the park two months ago. “You won’t believe how easy it is. Mr. Jones hands out the booklets and blank answer sheet. I write your info and you write mine. Here.” He handed her a piece of paper. “It’s my full name, address, and student number. Memorize it.”
She took the paper and wrote out her information for him. Then he left her there alone staring at the swings.
Ginny gets up from her bed and sits at the desk. Clearly Jeremy has done this before. That should make her feel better. It’s his plan, he knows the risks, so why is she shaking?
A part of her wasn’t kidding when she suggested to Charlotte and Joaquin that they ditch everything and go to Europe. Leave the overachiever, straight A student, and slam dunk college applicant part of her personality behind.
It’s all a lie.
A persona she created for herself.
She’s had larger-than-life dreams since she was old enough to know there was a future after playing at the park. That’s what she focused on. And where she lost herself.
But it was there all along. Of course, she sees it now. The desire to swing higher than she did the last time and slide faster than her last turn. The good thing is, if there is a good part, she was never in competition with anyone else. She was never hateful or vicious if someone scored higher than her or won an award. She just wanted to succeed for herself.
Then, four months ago, she began falling behind, usually in the subjects she didn’t like. She thought about a tutor, until Jeremy showed up. He pointed out the wrinkle between her brows and the growing bald spot on the side of her head. Had she been pulling out her hair? He offered to help. He’d take care of her homework, all she had to do was study for tests. And pay him for his work.
She agreed. She had a C in American History. Of course she agreed.
But just studying for tests isn’t as easy as she thought. It’s her only responsibility, so it has to be perfect. There’s no excuse not to get an A.
The stress and anxiety make her want to throw up.
She can’t throw up. Or eat. There’s no time.
Ginny rubs her eyes and opens her history book. Grades and money equal future. It’s the American way. She chuckles. Well, she has it, almost seventeen thousand dollars if they split what’s in the envelope. One third will go a long way. It will help her finish high school. But what can she get with the whole fifty thousand? A college degree, a great job, and a life where she lives happily ever after.
The sun sets early in the winter and the temperature drops quickly. Just like last night, by eight o’clock, the park is empty. Charlotte crosses the parking lot and heads toward the bush. She scans the area but knows all the families have gone home. It’s eerily quiet. Even the animals and bugs have called it a night.
She squats near the bush, moves twigs away, and peers underneath. The area looks just like they left it. Did she think the envelope would crawl out of the hole and find its own purpose?
She pops up, scratching her cheek on a twig, and looks toward the picnic table. A light from the parking lot casts a yellow glow and she can make out a silhouette.
Joaquin switches on his phone’s flashlight, illuminating his face, and holds up the envelope.
“Looking for this?”
She looks toward the bush then back at the table. “How did you know I’d come here?”
“Why are you here?” she asks.
The hum of a car engine and the glow of headlights in the parking lot stop Joaquin from answering. He looks at Charlotte’s hair pulled into a messy bun then at the car.
The engine stops.
A door slams.
The headlights fade.
The silence is broken by shoes crunching on dried leaves.
Charlotte smells Ginny’s lavender lotion before she sees her.
“He has it,” Charlotte says.
Joaquin holds up the light and envelope again.
“Did you know he’d come?” Ginny asks.
Charlotte shakes her head. “I thought you’d both be home studying.”
Ginny and Charlotte walk to the table and sit across from Joaquin. Just like they did last night.
“I have a new game,” Joaquin says. “It’s called three truths. I’ll start.”