Lee Matthew Goldberg
Publication date: April 29th, 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
They told me I was an out-of-control train about to crash…
Everything changed when the police officer knocked on the door to tell me – a 16-year-old – that my older sister Kristen had died of a brain aneurysm. Cue the start of my parents neglecting me and my whole life spiraling out of control.
I decided now was the perfect time to skip town. It’s the early 90’s, Kurt Cobain runs the grunge music scene and I just experienced some serious trauma. What’s a girl supposed to do? I didn’t want to end up like Kristen, so I grabbed my bucket list, turned up my mixtape of the greatest 90’s hits and fled L.A.. The goal was to end up at Kurt Cobain’s house in Seattle, but I never could have guessed what would happen along the way.
At turns heartbreaking, inspiring, and laugh out loud funny, Runaway Train is a wild journey of a bygone era and a portrait of a one-of-a-kind teenage girl trying to find herself again the only way she knows how.
Dead & Bloated – Stone Temple Pilots
My sister Kristen died the same day as the actor River Phoenix, October 31st, 1993, he from a drug overdose in the middle of the night outside the Viper Room, her on an early morning run through Laurel Canyon, two days before her seventeenth birthday—and a happy fucking Halloween to me. There I was, dressed up in costume as D’arcy, the bassist from Smashing Pumpkins: oversized baggy striped sweater, dyed blond hair, a dab of red lips and blue eye shadow, and a broken bass guitar slung around my shoulder that I didn’t know how to play anyway, watching the news where I saw River’s lean body, which I had imagined climbing on top of me multiple times, being hauled away on a stretcher, when the doorbell rang and a police officer asked if my parents were home.
“Er…no,” I said, running through my mind the millions of bad things I may have done. That strappy dress I’d shoplifted, the bag of dirt I sold to a freshman pretending it was weed.
“Are you a relative of Kristen Sullivan?”
Kristen? What could the police want with perfect Kristen?
“Yeah. Her sister.”
“I am sorry to tell you this, but your sister has died.”
I truly believed that if I slammed the door on the cop, what they said wouldn’t be real. That’s how mental I was. A montage of River Phoenix appeared on the television. Stand By Me, Running on Empty, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, and as the gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho, where I truly fell in love. I didn’t know if I was crying for him or Kristen, all I knew was my hands were blackened from the mascara stains.
The police officer went on to tell me what happened. Kristen was going for a run when she collapsed. A neighbor called the paramedics, but she was DOA likely from a brain aneurysm, the same thing that took my grandfather when he was super young too.
My own brain felt weighted, as if both their afflictions had insidiously traveled down the street and filtered into my cranium. Kristen and I were so close in age, Irish twins just eleven months apart, and the horror of thinking this might happen to me next became too much to deal.
“Where are your parents?” the police officer asked, sober and to the point, bringing me back from the brink of insanity. “Is there a number we can reach them at?”
Dad was surely at work, specializing in finance litigation, whatever the hell that meant, usually into the office by 7:00 a.m. and home sometimes around midnight, a ghost who occasionally graced us with his presence. Mom was a secretary in an ad agency, possibly still home. I heard a voice calling down from up above asking who it was. Mom’s face emerged at the top of the stairs. She had a hair crimper still smoking in her hand and wore a blouse with thick shoulder pads. Her nose twitched and then she sneezed. I couldn’t watch her heart break too so I just ran upstairs.
Instead of my room, I bolted into Kristen’s who kept it immaculate. Posters of Jason Priestly from 90210 adorned the walls. I was more of a Luke Perry gal with his bad-boy sideburns and scowl, and a receding hairline that I longed to stroke as he’d nestle his angular head into my lap so I could stare into his brooding eyes.
I flopped on Kristen’s bed, smelling the Sunflowers perfume still clinging to her pillow, and stared around her room. Sports trophies galore: track and field and volleyball, even basketball, which was her secondary sport. An Ace of Base poster taped to the ceiling. She would blast “The Sign,” and I’d reply by turning up Soundgarden or Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins or Mother Love Bone, or any kind of real music to drown out the shitty pop shit she loved so much. That was Kristen, a pop song: silky blond hair, hella popular at school but never a mean girl. She had so many friends I could never keep track of them all while I just had two: Winter and Jeremy, our super-exclusive trio of burnouts, terrible grades, and contempt for everyone else who pretended like they were in a 90210 episode. If I’d ever be prevented from graduating, no one would chant “Nico Sullivan Graduates” like they did for frog-faced Donna Martin.
Yes, my name is Nico, short for Nicole but no one has called me that since I was a little kid. Too pedestrian. Nico smokes long cigarettes while Nicole liked ponies. Nico uses her fake ID to get into clubs and listen to hella angry music where sweaty dudes with long hair in flannel shirts rage about the government and our lame parents and the War on Drugs and the AIDS crisis and old George Bush who’d finally been replaced by saxophone playing cool guy Bill Clinton—who I’d totally do—and then the two of us would share like five post-coital Big Macs because I know he’d be into that.
The thought stayed trapped between my ears. It had floated away momentarily only to come racing back with venom. My beautiful sister who I barely spent any time with, who I honestly resented because she didn’t have a muffin top body like mine and pasty skin and a smile that showed too much of her upper gums. I pictured her lying lonely on the ground when the aneurysm struck. Could she tell what was going on? Did she see the light as it took her away? Was she thinking of me? God, how narcissistic I could be. I whipped out a cigarette and lit it out the window, puffed away and contemplated leaping outside, two dead daughters in one horror of a day for my folks. I knew they’d mourn Kristen more. I was an afterthought, an oh right Nico’s there too, more of a ghost in the house than even my dad. I’d spend as much time away from home as possible, escaping with Winter and Jeremy.
I carefully listened at the door to hear if the cop was still there. I heard Mom weeping, dark sounds coming up from deep within her soul. I put out my cigarette and rushed out of Kristen’s room. Grabbing my Walkman, I booked it out of the house before anyone could stop me, not wanting to deal with Mom trying to comfort me or vice-versa. Headphones on, listening to my Stone Temple Pilots tape as the song “Dead & Bloated” shattered my eardrums. I turned up the volume to the max as the song took over the world.
I hit rewind and played the song over and over, singing it at the top of my lungs, causing our neighbor Mr. Ferguson to waddle outside in his backyard and give me the side eye because of our low fences. But then more police cruisers wailed up the block and pulled in front of our lawn and I was forced to confront my sad, sad reality again.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels THE ANCESTOR, THE MENTOR, THE DESIRE CARD and SLOW DOWN. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the Prix du Polar. His first YA series RUNAWAY TRAIN is forthcoming in 2021 along with a sci-fi novel ORANGE CITY. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, LitReactor, Monkeybicycle, Fiction Writers Review, Cagibi, Necessary Fiction, the anthology Dirty Boulevard, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press and others. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at LeeMatthewGoldberg.com