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The Jigsaw Club is filled to capacity and yet they still let me in. A bouncer named Sid checks my ID and then tells me he likes my boots, even though he isn’t looking at them. Inside the club there’s enough light to find the bathrooms. But not the exits.
I take a spot near the back where the wall is sticky and smells like beer. I don’t know much about beer, my mom drinks wine. She says it relaxes her, and I’m okay with that. We both know she needs to relax.
“Be careful, Kate,” she called out right before I left the house. “Be home by midnight. And — be careful.”
If I know anything it’s how to be careful. Normally this wouldn’t be my scene but I like the band. Their first two CDs could be considered the soundtrack to my life — that is, my life of solitary confinement.
The stage lights zigzag across the crowd and I spot a few kids from school. One or two make eye contact but that’s all they do. Their eyes slide on past me without a hint of recognition. They’ve had a few years to perfect this maneuver. I’m the only one not fooled. They sway back and forth to the music, their faces occasionally lit when they respond to a text. Or pretend to. Normal looks good on them. I fight back that familiar twinge of jealousy I always experience in their presence. I tug the sleeves of my black shirt down over my hands and tuck them into my armpits. It’s about a thousand degrees in this club, but I feel cold.
The band stops playing halfway through the next song. I figure there’s some kind of technical difficulty, but then a guy from just off stage grabs the mic and tells us all to head toward the exits. Quickly, he emphasizes. But no one moves. We all must be thinking the same thing: If this is for real shouldn’t the house lights come back on?
The musicians drop their instruments and run from the stage — that is, everyone but the bass player. He pauses only long enough to unplug his guitar and take it with him. From stage left the smoke appears. It clouds the stage lights, diluting their colors into murky renditions of blue, orange and red. It swirls about the ceiling as if it’s looking for someone. And that’s when I notice the flames.
Everyone starts moving at the same time, but there’s nowhere to go. They slam into each other like bowling pins, some are knocked over while others tip sideways and then stabilize. I’m frozen until the smoke reaches me. It moves in through my nose and tickles the back of my throat. I push off from the wall only to get knocked to the ground. My hands splash into something wet on the floor and then slide around as I try to climb up onto my knees. Something slams into the top of my head and I slip sideways, nearly face-planting to the ground. My head is pounding, the pain so intense I begin to choke. I breathe in, slow and then fast, trying my best to fight off the possibility of blacking out. I only need to rest for a moment. Just one moment should help.
“Kate! Get up!” Someone tugs at my arm and then all at once I’m on my feet. A blurry figure grabs my hand and pulls me toward him. And because I’m barely able to stand I allow it to happen.
“Stay close,” he yells and then drags me behind him. My rescuer uses his body like a bulldozer, plowing through the shapes and shadows around us. When he knocks a young girl to her knees he pauses only long enough to help her to her feet before we’re on the move again. The stage lights skimming through the crowd bounce off his hair tinting it an electric blue and then a clownlike orange. I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of his face.
We crash out the side entrance and the cool night air feels like a gift I will never return. One deep breath after another fills my lungs and my knees begin to shake. I’m coughing, he’s coughing — I feel like I might collapse.
“You should go,” he says. His voice is scratchy. He still hasn’t released my hand.
The alleyway is dimly lit, but I can make out a strong jawline and dark hooded eyes. There’s something familiar about him. My stomach clenches and I wonder if I know him from school. No, that can’t be right. No one from school would risk their life to save mine.
“Thank you,” I say and he nods. The words barely make it past my raw throat. When I don’t look away he takes a step back into the shadows.
I open my mouth to say something more but then stop when I feel a warm drip of moisture trickle down the side of my face. I want to believe it’s rain, please let it be rain, but when I look up at the sky all I see are stars. I turn my face away and hope he hasn’t noticed. Maybe the darkness will keep my secret this time.
No such luck.
His grip on my hand tightens, as if he’s sensed I’m about to run. “You’re hurt.” His other hand reaches out to me but I jerk away. I’m looking at the ground, my long hair covering my face, when he says, “Don’t let them see you.” He releases my hand one finger at a time and then steps further back into the shadows.
“What’s your name?” I ask. I have to know.
He hesitates for a split second and then says, “Jonah.”
“Go, Kate. Now!”
I stare into the shadows one last time, and then I run. I run past the choking wall of teenagers lying on the sidewalk outside the club. I run past the fire trucks and security guards. I run until the blood spilling from the jagged wound in my skull begins to cloud my vision. And even then I don’t slow down until the blood finally stops and the pounding in my head ceases to nothing. I reach up and let my hand move along my scalp until I’m convinced. My hair is matted with dried blood but my skin is once again smooth.
There’s a Chinese food restaurant across the street from me that advertises all you can eat wontons, and the flashing neon sign above the door tells me they never close. I slip through the front door with my head down and hurry toward the restroom. I stick my head under the sink and scrub at my hair until the water changes from rust colored back to clear.
The bathroom mirror is dirty, just like the toilet, sink and floor, but right now I can’t think of a better place to be. My face is paler than normal, which emphasizes the streaks of dirt and blood across my cheeks. I wet down a paper towel and do my best to clean it all away, but the rough texture of the towel only turns my cheeks a raw looking pink. My eyes widen in the mirror when someone starts pounding on the wall.
“Restroom for customer only,” an angry Chinese woman says once I open the door.
I shrug my shoulders and duck behind my long wet hair. I have no reason to hide from her — not now — but I do it anyway.
“Two egg rolls to go,” I tell her, handing her a five dollar bill.
She doesn’t smile. Her suspicious eyes pin me to the wall while she rings out the line of customers back at the cash register. When she hands me my small bag of egg rolls she mumbles something about a woman’s shelter a few blocks away, and then she pushes me out the door.
I eat my egg rolls on the bus. My shirt is slightly wet and my hair is dripping, but I’m clean. No one would guess I was injured tonight. Not even my mother.
“I take it you didn’t like the band?” she asks when I walk through the door. She glances up and smiles over the neatly folded piles of laundry distributed evenly along the back of the couch.
I shrug and say, “not so great live,” and head toward my bedroom.
I know to keep my lies simple and my explanations short. Unnecessary rambling is a sure sign of guilt. Thankfully my mother doesn’t come too close otherwise she’d smell smoke, blood and egg rolls.
“Are you packed, Kate?” Her voice carries down the hallway. “We need to leave a little earlier tomorrow than we’d planned, so you should pack tonight. I have a stop to make before our flight.”
“I’m almost packed. I’ll be ready by morning.”
“Kate?” she calls after me and I stop directly in front of my bedroom door.
I slide my finger along my shiny door handle, anticipating her next words. The handle is smooth to the touch. And pink. I picked it out when I was five years old and it has survived seven different houses, seven different bedrooms and seven different towns. Just like me.
“Yes?” I say when she hesitates.
“You can still change your mind.”
“I won’t,” I tell her.
“It’s just that—” she continues but I cut her off.
“I’m going. It’s important to me.” My hand grips the door handle and I open my door. Just inside my doorway I wait for the argument. The same three words that preempt every disagreement my mother and I have.
It’s. Not. Safe.
But this time the words are different.
“Alright, Kate. Alright,” she says, followed by a sigh.
I slide my suitcase out of my closet and the noise stirs the small cat lounging on my bed.
“You’ve been in that exact spot all day, Lefty,” I say.
But he doesn’t care to acknowledge that comment. Instead he crawls into the top portion of the open suitcase, as if to say you’re not leaving without me.
Lefty is all white except for one gray spot right above his chin. I love that spot. I call it his soul patch, like he should be reading obscure poetry in a café somewhere downtown. But he doesn’t like it much. He does his best to remove it every time he takes a bath.
He came to us when I was eight. He showed up one night at dinnertime and after a few minutes of howling I opened the door and he walked right in. My mother was hesitant at first, until she realized he was the one friend that would always keep my secrets.
Besides, how can you turn away a three-legged cat?
I go through the motions of packing but all I can see is Jonah. If only I could shine a flashlight into the memory of his face just to see the color of his eyes. He seemed so familiar to me, as if I knew him. Or I’d seen him somewhere before. I think back through all the schools I’ve been to, Boston, Chicago or possibly here in San Diego. There have been so many schools, so many kids. But no Jonah. Perhaps I’ve seen him around my mother’s boutique? But that doesn’t seem likely either.
There’s a soft knocking on my bedroom door and then my mother calls out, “Goodnight, Kate.” She doesn’t open the door. No goodnight kiss or bedtime story for me. Now that I’m seventeen we’re past that. But there are times I wish she’d tuck me in, tell me everything’s going to be alright, like she did when I was younger. And I could pretend to believe her, for just one night. Like I did when I was younger.
My mother and I live like roommates, best friends who exist for each other alone. Or “codependent,” I believe they call it. She says there’s no one she’d rather spend time with, but I know that can’t be true because as much as I love her there are days when I’d kill for someone else to talk to.
Someone who doesn’t have to love me. They just do.
“Goodnight, Mom,” I call out now, but it’s too late. She’s already moved on down the hall.
I grab my iPhone and crank my favorite playlist. I fill my suitcase with running shoes and running clothes — everything I need for tomorrow’s track meet — and, oh yeah, one pair of pajamas. Outside my window the night is settling in as one by one lights are turned off and sleep is the uniform goal in the beachside community. And down the hall my mother joins them.
I love it when the house is quiet, my favorite time of night. I dance around my bedroom where I know no one is watching me. That is, no one other than a three-legged cat. Here I can pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist.
For the moment I’m not a freak.
I’m just Kate.
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