I remember this one day, about two weeks after everything started to get weird, where my mother tried really hard to get me back to normal. It was a dark and rainy day in suburbia; I had slept in, and Casey had come over that afternoon. My mother said, “Katy let’s go do something. Let’s get you out of the house. Let’s go shopping or something.” She looked me in the eye, hoping for a spark of life that she could call a victory. It was strange, I had been sitting in my room talking to Casey, and my mother usually knew not to bother us, because really, what young couple wants to be interrupted by anyone, let alone a parent? But she had come right in and insisted more forcefully than usual that we go somewhere.
“We could do that. Let’s go to Charlotte, Casey loves that store,” I said, and turned to Casey to see if she was okay with it.
My mother sighed and looked away, asking if that’s what I wanted to do, and I nodded, turned to get her coat and keys. I briefly wondered what Casey wanted for Christmas.
The car was quiet, punctuated by a few halfhearted attempts at conversation, but the atmosphere wasn’t conducive to conversation. It was raining, and we all spent most of the car ride watching the monotonous view pass by. Every once in a while Casey or I would say something and the other would crack up, always receiving a concerned glance from my mother. I would roll my eyes and we’d turn back to our windows with small smiles. Riding in the back of a car made it seem like I was a child again, just taller.
I caught Casey looking at me at one point. At first she didn’t notice she’d been spotted, her eyes were caught in my hair. I gently slid my hand across the seat and grasped hers, startling her from her reverie. In exchange I got a sheepish smile, small and genuine with eyes averted. I turned back to the windshield wipers and the grey scenery without moving my hand.
Once we got there, my mom seemed to brighten up a bit. This little adventure was supposedly for me, but I think it did more good for her. Maybe she was one who needed to get out of the house. We scanned rack upon rack of clothing that none of us could afford, occasionally holding up one for the other to see, and every time proclaiming undying love. Casey and I brought armfuls of potential outfits and modeled them for each other. We struck ridiculous poses and laughed at each other like highschoolers. We stole a few intense gazes and even a kiss while my mother was elsewhere. I marveled at Casey – at her smile – how it lifted the haunted look from her eyes. I wondered, not for the first time, if she was as completely smitten as I was. It was fun; the sort of devastatingly normal outing that one comes to treasure.
A couple weeks later I was going to work, and there was this girl on the bus with me. She had long blonde hair and was wearing long sleeves pulled up around her elbows; the color of the shirt made her hazel eyes look blue. She was short, seemingly comfortable in clothing Casey would never leave the house in – she was vaguely preppy opposed to Casey’s grown up punk, but she carried herself in a similar way. She stood and walked with the same sense of weighted understanding that Casey did. Her shoulders were squared, her head high, and held a critical inward gaze while at the same time smiling and tapping her finger to the peppy music on the radio. But what initially caught my attention were the white and pink lines down her left forearm. She reminded me of something I would rather forget. If I had held my hands out they would have shook, but they were safely clenched in the denim of my jeans, uncomfortably damp. My breath came in quick and shallow through my nose in time with the blood pounding in my ears. Almost exactly how people describe a panic attack. She sat across the bus, unaware she was being watched, unaware of what she was doing.
The bus stopped, and the awkward shuffle of mass exit began. It wasn’t my stop, I did contemplate getting off and waiting for the next bus just to escape the girl and her scars, but I was already running late. The bus slowly emptied. By the time the doors closed and we started forward again the scarred girl and I were two of only a few people on the bus. I looked away and tried desperately to think about something else. Calculus, physics, something. After a moment, movement in my periphery startled me.
“Hi, I’m Claire.”
The scarred girl had moved, now next to me with a cautious smile on her face. She smelled like cigarettes and faintly of citrus, nothing like Casey, who always seemed to smell vaguely of laundry detergent, even if she’d just come back from soccer. The girl had her backpack on her lap, but managed to maneuver so that she could extend her arm, albeit at a very awkward angle, and ended up offering her left hand. Who the hell shakes hands anymore? I didn’t reach out to take it. I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t touch her, I could barely even breathe. Her scars had been thrown into sharp relief, and up close they looked even more like Casey’s. The raised bumps captured my attention so fully that I was focused solely on ignoring them. She looked down at her hand for a moment before retracting the limb, and with it the openness of her expression, but she retained her cautious, forced smile.
“So… what’s your name?” she asked.
“Kathryn,” I got out, trying to control my breathing, telling myself to relax, and doing my best not to stare. She was obviously uncomfortable. Perhaps my emotional condition was more obvious than I realized. Maybe she had noticed what she was doing to me. I looked away from her for a moment, but like a bloody car wreck I couldn’t look away for long. I would be counting the patterns in the fabric of an empty seat, tracing zigzag blues and reds, my mind comfortably blank, when my mind or eyes would wander back to the reason I was counting thread patterns. My palms would start sweating with renewed vigor; my vision would go blurry again.
I finally turned to her after several failed attempts at distracting myself and said, “Would you please pull your sleeves down?” and the girl looked at me, first with a questioning look, which grew into embarrassment and then quickly into anger. To my relief she nodded.
I didn’t watch her pull her sleeves down, rather I heard fabric rustling over skin. It sounded like she did it quickly, angrily. I could feel it once she had though, there was a lightening of the atmosphere, as if once the record of a horrific event was out of sight, then it never happened. I could look at her now, my discomfort alleviated slightly.
“Happy?” she asked bitingly.
I didn’t answer. I just looked out the window.
“What is your problem? Usually when people stare at me for an entire bus ride they want to talk,” she said.
I looked at her and denied that I was staring. She mumbled something angrily and moved across the aisle. I suppose it wasn’t very nice of me to not talk to her. I didn’t care much, I wanted to go home and see Casey and be reminded of the things about Casey that I loved. She yells at me for not talking to people. People don’t listen though. I tried, for a long time to talk to people, but after years of mistaking them caring about me for them being willing to listen, I stopped trying.
When the bus finally came to a stop, I stood and gathered my things. Not looking as I started forward, someone bumped me and my hand brushed against her newly exposed forearm. The scar tissue interrupted her relatively soft skin in seemingly perfect intervals. For a moment her arms dragged me backwards and my mind was flooded with the feel of Casey’s legs, snapshots of what she looked like as I watched her break down for the first time two years before. Differences between the two of them were lost in that prolonged moment. In that second I was touching Casey, grasping her hands and pushing her hair out of her face. I saw her smeared mascara and swollen eyes standing out from a pale face. I saw bleeding lines and the most utterly terrifying expression of fear, embarrassment and anger I’d ever seen on her face. Her teeth were bared, but not in anger; her slightly crooked teeth pulling at the skin of chapped lips. Her eyes were wide, her eyebrows alternating between knitted together in frustration and drawn up in pain and something else. In one moment I watched bliss flit across her expression. Her hands were pressed against the white of her thighs below her shorts, black cherry fluid rising between her long fingers and mingling with the rust color of slightly less recent sins. She held her blade between two fingers like a cigarette. I saw her head fall to the wall where she sat in the corner and heard her tell me I shouldn’t be here. The hard tile floor was slick and wet. I felt the wet seep through the fabric over my knees when I knelt beside her. There was blood on my hands as I reached for her. They say blood is thicker than water, but it crusts like saltwater. I felt her lungs expand and contract against my chest as I held her, and her hair, unkempt and rougher than normal. I felt the warmth of the tears I pushed off her face and I could smell her shampoo; fruit mingled with the harsh chemical aroma of whatever she used to clean her bathroom. We lay there curled up together, her blood ruining my clothes.
In the space between the last step and the asphalt outside my fleshed cooled and sweated. Get away get away get away repeating over and over in my mind I pushed on, deep breaths, careful steps, marshaling control of my body so that the bus and that girl and all those hateful scars could fade slowly into the nebulous past and become a memory I could suppress. It didn’t work this time. Every time I told myself to stop, to look ahead, to think about work, my mind looped back to the scars on that girl’s arm.
I saw the girl up ahead of me. Several yards past the bus stop, I couldn’t tell you why I started to follow her. Curiosity? Masochism? I’m not sure. Perhaps closure – to find why she felt the need to interrupt my peace. I followed her past my destination and eventually into an apartment building. I made no effort to conceal myself, my actions were barely conscious, but she never turned and saw that I was there. Not until she stood with her keys in front of a door labeled 6A did she see me. Her startled, fearful cry woke me partially from my previous stupor. She started saying things to me, asking why I was here. Each time her questions were met with silence her voice got louder. She was screaming at me to leave, her voice ricocheting around the linoleum hallway and inside my head. I raised my hands in surrender; I meant nothing by being here. If she had merely opened her unlocked door and left me alone none of this would have happened. I would be with Casey, maybe trying on clothes I couldn’t buy if she had just left me alone.
She continued screaming at me. I didn’t move, held in place by some emotion I couldn’t name. She came towards me, reached into her bag and pulled out a small canister. Brief instinctual fear moved me backwards, the aerosol spray just touching me. Pepper spray hurts like a bitch. I bent over, the pain breaking the spell her scars had started to put on me back on the bus. She kicked me, angry, and my numbness flashed into savage rage. I was angry. I was angry that I was in love with a girl that hated herself. I was angry and ashamed that I was so bothered by it. But most of all, I was furious at this girl who had the audacity to remind me of all I wanted to forget.
I remember raising my fist and the shock of it connecting with her body. I remember the look on her face when my passivity evaporated; her eyes wide, lips parted. I remember kneeling over her body, knees to either side, hitting her again and again. I remember her arms bent, trying to covering her face, her hair spread on the carpet beneath us. I remember feeling the muscles of her body slowly quieting along with the sounds of her struggle. I remember my hands clenched so tightly into fists I couldn’t open my fingers, like when you’ve been driving for too long and your hands cramp around the steering wheel. I remember slumping sideways off of her body and my knees and hands aching. I remember pushing her hair off her face and seeing her hazel eyes glazed over and bloodshot. I remember the red line through her eyebrow that trickled over the blue and purple color her cheekbones had turned. I remember my hands aching, the blood partially dried, cracking with every twitch of my fingers.
She didn’t look anything like Casey anymore. Even when Casey had lain in similar fashion, it had been entirely on purpose, peaceful even. Not the product of events outside her control. I sat in that hallway until someone showed up, ignoring my handiwork.
He approached cautiously. He didn’t scream for 15 minutes like they do in the movies. He asked me what happened but I was so distracted by the dust in the air I forgot to answer him. The little motes were dancing and shifting color. The man looked at the girl, and then back to me where I sat against the wall, and then back to the girl contorted on the floor. Slowly, he pulled a phone out of his long beige coat with too many pockets and made a phone call.
After a moment he crouched down and as he did, he disturbed the dust motes, now swirling with the current of the air. “I’m Jim. What’s your name?” There was a window at the end of the hall. It let in some light, but it was the wrong time of day so the light was soft. No piercing beams for the dust motes to move through and make the light solid. It was vaguely disappointing.
I grabbed the bags out of the back of the car when we got home from Charlotte while my mother went inside. When I got inside my mother was standing at the counter. I think she was making coffee. As I turned to take my things up to my room she turned to me.
“Katy,” she said in that soft voice that implies the beginning of a difficult conversation.
I stopped and rolled my eyes at Casey, who shrugged and continued upstairs.
“Katy, I really think we need to talk.”
I shuffled over to the kitchen table and sat down. “About what?” My mother pushed off the counter where she had been leaning, pulled out a chair and slumped into it. Resting her elbows on the table and her head in one hand she said, “I feel like today was a good day, but I’m worried about you. You haven’t been the same since-”
“Stop,” I said.
I started to stand up but she reached out and grabbed the back of my shirt.
“Katy, I don’t understand what’s going on in your head. Why do you insist on this game? I thought you moving back home would help.”
I tried to pull out of her grip but she held fast, her face pleading.
“But if you’re not at work, you just sit in your room, and I can’t tell what you need from me.”
I finally pulled her hand off my shirt and turned away, adjusting the fabric from where she had pulled it out of place.
“At least help me understand what you’re thinking! I don’t know whether you’re blaming yourself for what happened or just can’t deal with losing her.”
I grabbed the bags sitting at the base of the stairs and went up to my room.
“Katy even if you don’t talk to me you have to talk to someone!” She called after me, hysteria edging into her voice.
I’m sure when I left my mother sank dejectedly back into her chair, bringing her glass to her lips then letting it fall, and sighing dramatically. That’s something she would do.
I opened the door to my room and smiled when I saw Casey sitting on the bed. Her legs were crossed, and she leaned back, weight on her hands.
“What was that about?” she asked.
I told her it was nothing and gently shut the door, my earlier frustration departed. I pulled a shirt out of the bags I had dropped on the floor and started pulling the tags off, tossing the finished product onto my bed. I noticed Casey rubbing her wrists and raised a questioning eyebrow. She shrugged and stopped.
“My scars itch,” she said.
They were talking about shock. How I was obviously in it. I sat on the ground outside of a building that looked the same as all the ones around it. Five or six stories, ugly brown brick or concrete blocks, some design near the roof that I suppose might have been beautiful 40 years ago. I suppose the only thing that made it different was what I did in it. They hadn’t cleaned the blood off my hands yet. They had taken some wet cloth to my face, wrapped me in a blanket and sat me on the ground with instructions to stay there until someone came to collect me. They were busy inside. I had seen them starting their rituals before I was ushered out. Big cameras with big flash bulbs taking detailed pictures of what I had done.
Jim was standing with a portly cop a few yards from me with his hands on his hips and a very sad and contemplative look on his face. He looked like one of those people on TV, giving their oh-so-very-important witness statement. I suppose he was telling them what it looked like when they found me. The lights of the ambulance that had taken Claire had left a while ago; I was left with the smaller but more intimidating police cars.
I noticed a car approaching. My mother’s. It pulled up and stopped just outside the barrier the police had put up, startling a few of the passersby that had stopped to watch the festivities. My mother leapt out and rushed to the barrier with hair flying, crumpled cloths, and wild eyes. They must have called her. Maybe I told them to. I watched her try to get over the barrier and a younger looking cop grab her arm when she tried to walk past him. I watched as Casey climbed more slowly out the passenger side door. Her eyebrows were furrowed, she looked angry and it was disconcerting. No one else looked angry; panicked, concerned, and focused, but not angry. She walked slowly and I stood to meet her, where my mother had made a scene and been stopped, no one seemed to notice Casey duck under the barrier.
I reached for her once she got close enough, but she stopped me. “Not here” she said, and looked over to where people were coming in and out of the building carrying boxes and pieces of equipment. “
What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You’re a dumbass, that’s what’s wrong.”
I looked at her with wide eyes, trying to figure out what she meant. The lights flashing on top of the cops cars illuminated her face, the blues and reds and whites changing the tone of her expression with each cycle.
“But you can probably get away with this. Did you say anything to the guy who called the cops?” she asked me.
I shook my head, scrutinizing her face for a sign. She seemed satisfied. I looked back towards where my mother had come through the barrier and was now striding towards me.
“When she asks, you should probably say you met her on the bus and were going her place for coffee or something,” Casey said.
“But that doesn’t explain why she got beat up,” I said.
“You startled someone who was stealing shit.”
“You’re such an idiot.”
“You love me.”
“Damn straight,” she said.
I smiled, and her face relaxed a little bit. Casey slowing reached out her hand to grab mine. For a second I was distracted by my Mothers approach through the sea of vehicles. I almost didn’t hear Casey whisper that she was sorry.
Profile: Emily Wadsworth