A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Lunchroom"
Originally featured on 07-27-2007
As part of our series "Out of the Sandwich"

The air outside felt good; sticky hot, it felt thick around me. I had to sit down, I had a knot in my stomach, I needed to breathe.

“Feeling low, Pete?” Barry pushed his wheelchair up beside the bench where I sat.

“Sick I guess,” I said, “I have the spins.”

“It'll pass.” Barry smiled, his teeth were yellow, the color of the gold earring in his left ear.

Other patients were outside now, some were still wearing the scrubs that were mandatory the first three days, and some wore street clothes. It wasn’t necessary to were scrubs the whole time, the doctor told me when I came, but they needed to keep us safe the first few days. I suppose they meant they didn’t want anyone smuggling anything in, drugs, weapons, I don’t know. It seemed everyone was here for different reasons, so who knows what they were capable of. My drug of choice was alcohol. Barry’s drug of choice was alcohol too, but also pot and heroin. I met him in my first day here, and he was really the only person I had spoken to at length.

Three girls came out of the main building. They were talking. Two of them were still wearing scrubs, and one wore cut-off jeans and a t-shirt with “Lil' Princess” written on it.

“Damn, summer even makes the girls here pretty,” Barry said.

One of the girls in scrubs, with sandy blond hair, rolled the sleeves of her shirt up. Then she rolled up the bottom so she could get some sun on her stomach. She stretched out.

“The heat makes them take their clothes off,” I said.

“What a sweet thing that is.”

“I haven’t been with a girl in three years,” said Barry. I looked over at him. His chin had white grizzle on it, and I guessed at his age, thirty-five. Probably eight or ten years older than me. “People like you,” Barry continued, “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

A staff member walked over to Sandy and pointed at her shirt. She rolled it back down.

I stood up.

“I’ll be back,” I said to Barry.

I walked over to the girls who were sitting under the tree.

“They don’t allow you to do that here,” I said.

“What?” Asked the girl, and squinted at me; the sun shown on her face.

“You can’t show any skin,” I smiled, “who knows what could happen if all the pretty girls did that.”

She smiled, “What do you think could happen?”

“Anarchy,” I said.

“My friends and I were thinking about going to get a Coke, would you like to come along.”

“Sure,” I said. I looked back at Barry, who watched me.

We walked together to the lunch room, Princess, Sandy, and the other girl in scrubs, who had become somewhat flushed in the sun. We walked past a swinging door with a circular window in it. Machines hummed and clanked from behind. A few staff members dressed in white orderly uniforms moved through the hallway, into the room of machinery.

Rosie, Princess, Sandy, and I had to walk close as staff members wheeled a heavy metal cart filled with lunch trays by us. I brushed against Sandy’s shoulder, and I reached down for her hand. She didn’t resist when I squeezed it for a second.

We enjoyed our cokes in the spacious cafeteria. They came from a dispensing machine in the corner.

“The soda here tastes terrible,” said Rosie.

“Yeah, as in 'yuck,'” said Princess.

“I like it, it’s sweet,” said Sandy.

“You're sweet,” I said.

“Don’t be an idiot,” she said.



“Wake up,” Barry said. The only light in the room came from my open door. Barry rolled closer to my bed.

“What’s up?” I asked, rubbing my face.

“I want you to do something for me. I want you to go past those trees and tell me what you see.”

I looked out the window. The treatment facility had a big field behind it, and at the edge of the field, there stood a wall of pines.

“I can’t get there,” Barry said, tapping the wheel of his chair.

“The window’s locked,” I said, pulling on the bottom of the frame.

Barry produced a small star-shaped screwdriver. He reached under the top of the window frame and unscrewed two small screws. The window swung open.

The grass felt springy and brushed water on my pant legs. I held the special screwdriver tightly in my hand.

I tapped on Sandy’s window with the screwdriver. She jumped, scared. She moved over to the glass and put her hand against it, pressed it flat so that a steam halo formed around her fingers. I unscrewed the frame on the window, and pushed it open.

“Hey,” I said, “want to go for a walk?”

“Sure, where do you want to go?”

“Past those trees,” I pointed.

I held her hand and helped her through the window. We walked across the field, swishing through the grass. No star shone; from the east, violet light pollution swallowed all the sky but the moon.

“Where did you come from before here?” She asked.

“Idaho,” I said, “I drank too much at a party.” I reached over and held her hand. “It was really cold outside; it had snowed the night before. I had like twelve shots of vodka; I don’t know how much, I just finished the bottle. When I walked outside…the doctor said it just shocked my system…I was dead for three minutes in an ambulance.”

“I had an abortion,” she said, “and then my parents sent me here. I’m from California. Iowa feels like a world apart.”

The trees were thick and underbrush tore at the legs of our scrubs. As we walked through, light began to penetrate. We could hear the muffled sound of cars and machines. On the other side of the trees, a multi-lane highway stretched in either direction for miles. Not far from us, a construction crew had torn up a portion of the road, and was working on some unknown project under large flood lights.

“How far are you planning on going?” Sandy turned my hand over in hers.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I can’t stay here. I’ve got friends, and my parents won’t let me see them when I go home. That’s if I go home, my mom is talking about sending me to another school.”

“Where would you go?” I asked.

“I don’t know; somewhere.” She started to walk towards the construction crew. I thought about following her.

“Sandy,” I called after her, “Sandy!”

She turned around, and her mouth moved, but couldn’t hear her above the noise from the construction crew.


It looked like she mouthed, “Come on, follow me.”


Barry waited for me. He smiled when I crawled back through my window.

“What’s there, beyond the trees?” He asked.

“There’s a road,” I said, getting back into bed, “a long highway, and there are some guys working on it right now, they’ve dug these huge holes into it and are going deeper with these machines. They look like huge jackhammers on these long arms. They have sharp points and can smash through the asphalt.”

Barry sighed and sat back. He pushed his chair back, towards the door.

“I took Sandy with me,” I said.

Barry stopped.

“She decided to run.”

Barry didn’t say anything for a moment. “You ever been afraid of something?”

“Sure,” I said, “I drank so much I died, that scares me.”

“I mean, have you ever lived with fear?”

“Everyone probably does,” I said. I felt tired, my eyelids were heavy.

“Sure, you’re right,” Barry said, “but I’m probably going to be in another place like this after I leave. Maybe even a group home after that. I’m going to have people taking care of me for the rest of my life.”

“You think so?”

“I know, man, I’m not getting any better.” Barry smiled and moved closer to the door.

It felt like the air got heavier, and my brain began to shrink into sleep.

“I’m just trying to get through each day,” I said, something I’d heard in group therapy the day before.

Read More By Jim McCollum

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

Archives Archives