by Katie Barnes
I remember a summer night, starless and black. Strange—that sky in a city. Wolfing down a falafel roll outside a Kings Cross nightclub, your voice slapped the back of my head—Girl! I might have flinched. You must have liked that. The way your foot was up on the shop window, almost bouncing it. Best keep my distance, I thought. That girl is tough. Hard, in a way that hurts. You yelled again, louder—Hey! I swung my head around. You couldn’t see my dread. Tossing the kebab wrapper into the trashcan on the curb, I stuck my hands in my jean pockets, like a gunslinger, stared straight at your face, even though I was faking the look by narrowing my eyes like I could read your mind.
What was I doing in the city, Rose? I certainly had no plans that included you. I was nineteen and didn’t know trouble. You probably saw an easy mark, someone oblivious to how a big city worked. How a famous red-light neighborhood ground into action the moment the street lamps threw dull light down in rings, marking the dirty pavement below like little glowing nooses. I wandered across them blindly into a world where I didn’t belong. A place with rules I didn’t know. A world far outside anything I’d seen. Which is why I wanted to go there. In Kings Cross I heard you did whatever you wanted. Stayed out late, haunted the street, the strip clubs, the bars. You could go absolutely wild. Maybe let out a person you’d tried hard not to be.
From where I stood, malformed shadows hid parts of your face. I wouldn’t know how much darkness could be found right there. That the glare of bright lights and a good time in the nightclub upstairs couldn’t take that away. If you thought I was there to drink and pick up a guy, you were wrong. I was there to dance and meet people. Be a regular in the club—become a VIP. Each night I arrived alone, left in a cab alone. You probably thought that old-fashioned of me, Rose. Now I see it was worse—it was naive. I carried on as if nothing could touch me.
You flicked what looked like a roll-your-own smoke, as I strode casually toward the club stairs. My heart should have been racing, but it wasn’t. The red carpet all the way up was too inviting. Girl! You shifted your weight toward me, grinning, blocking the first step with your boot. Your mouth slid sideways as you did it—gangster.
You sure you’re going up? you said.
Yeah… I’m already in, I said, smiling and flashing the smudged stamp on the back of my hand. Then I gestured like the red-carpeted stairs were familiar. Maybe like I owned the place. Gave a stiff little wave to the bouncer who just nodded, keeping his eyes straight ahead. I didn’t need to say much. Stepped over your boot and sauntered on up.
Well, have a good time, Girl, you said, blowing the words through a cloud of smoke. For a moment you looked ghostly. Then a weed smell drifted upward, and from the top stair I saw you as an outline, something tangible yet not filled in—unreal.
That’s all you were then, I decided. A snapshot of trouble designed in my head, gone the minute I stepped into the club. Act like a VIP, I thought. Anyone can act tough so people believe it. Why not me?
I might have leaned against the bar, flirted with the barman before taking up too much of the dance floor. I waved my arms carelessly, high above my body, spun around like others near me, laughing and throwing back my head. I hoped the whole world was watching. So I twirled around even more of the dance floor, taking it over when some of your posse kept looking my way. I thought they were just wishing they could dance like me. That’s what my mind told me. The strobe flashed anxious white beams around the room. But I saw them as streaks of envy. So many faces turned in my direction instead of paying you attention when you tried holding court. Maybe you were a Queen, but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t buy it. You had too many diamantes gleaming on your acrylic nails.
You threw your head back into the light—a challenge—bobbed it side to side, thinking that you found the beat. As your fingers ruffled through your fringe, you caught me staring at your boots, as if I’d just said they were cheap and shitty. Waved me over to where your crowd always sat. But I was busy, showing how it was done, ruling—on the beat. I spun away, laughing, twirling, my hands stroking my neck. It was sticky with sweat. Maybe I went into a trance, but my legs throbbed in time to a new thudding in my chest. A rush, like I was a sprinter, seconds before leaving the blocks. Except I didn’t move. Then came the surge: thick and tight currents through my limbs, like my bones were turning to concrete, inward, heavy and slow.
I glared at the DJ in the booth—his terrible, awkward mix— then realized I was alone on the floor. Maybe I smelled bad and needed to wipe off under my arms. That’s what I told myself. Movements in the room slowed around me, or was it me, choosing to play it like chicken crossing the road? That’s how I drifted to the bathroom, never thinking I might not come back out.
I didn’t know where I was at first. My legs were underneath me or out in front of me, I couldn’t tell. Something was swinging back and forth, and I couldn’t see. A rising smell–-urine, yes, and then, cigarette breath, laced with Southern Comfort–-I knew that stench, I couldn’t stomach it. Weeks before I’d vomited shots of it onto the curb–-my attempt to fit in, drink fast, and seem cool, even if it made me sick. But it hadn’t worked. A bottle forced into my hand, someone had said, Drink, or you don’t belong.
Now I realize that was you, Rose. I drained what looked like the last quarter of the bottle, wiped my mouth. Dropped the bottle in the gutter. Next came the contents of my stomach, spattering over pieces of broken glass, food-wrapper trash, and one side of my steel-cap boots.
A tap dribbled into a basin. Maybe the sound was just someone peeing. I could only open my left eye, the one furthest from the bathroom door. A shadowy figure bent down and said, Look at you, on the floor, you must have really done something. You didn't see that coming. Another shadow figure entered, taller, stood by the sinks, checking out its handiwork. I knew this was you, Rose. That rank cigarette breath. Those fingers waving diamante nails.
What did I do? I was crying, trying not to cry, as I said it.
I just don’t like you, you said. Smiled. Winked. Spat your gum on the floor. You should be worried, you said, and kicked the door wide open.
No one helped me that night, Rose. No one was there to notice I didn’t come out for some time. I remember two more girls sidling around me saying, Shit, you look bad. But really they were vying for the best spot in front of the mirror to tease their hair. I was in the way. Hand to the wall, I leaned into it and staggered to my feet, my face continuing to swell. That’s when I realized my purse was gone—I suppose anyone could have taken it while I was slumped against the wall. Good thing I kept a twenty-dollar bill slid down my sock, wrapped around a house key.
Down on the corner I waited for a cab. A few feet away, two streetwalkers nodded off on their high heels, their backs bobbing lightly against the shop window like it was rubber. It was 4:00am, and the streets seethed with junkies and hookers and partygoers determined to forgo any sense of morning.
My cheek swelled into my eye, threatening to close the lid. I fingered the top lashes, forcing my sight into a slit. Where would you go that night, Rose. Would you move onto a late-night club or party? I never thought to look up from the curb, away from the oncoming cab. I would never know if your foot was back on the shop window, tapping away the minutes it might take to follow me home.
A month later my face healed, I’d stopped going to the Cross. I blamed myself for going to a bad place. I never found my purse. Maybe you had it the whole time. I was long gone by then—disappeared myself into the suburbs. I left you to the streetwalkers, neon lights, and coffee shops open 24 hours.
My parents were happy to hear I’d fallen out of love with the city—they came to help me move. They seemed happy to know I wouldn’t need help much longer with money. I batted away questions about my safety, and was I happy, by rolling my eyes and giving details about my door-to-door sales job in the suburbs—desperate, yes, but the one thing I could tell them was true.
I began living in the suburb of Ashfield, fifteen minutes by train, west of the city. I saw myself retreating behind the face of a good girl, doing all the right things and ditching the wrong people. Never being bad. Reality found me hanging around the local nightspot, The Polish Club, instead. Even when I looked away from the big hair, bare legs, tight skirts, black Lycra bike shorts with boots lined up all the way to the velvet rope on Saturday nights, you were still there, Rose, when you shouldn’t have been—waiting in my mind, even after I’d taken the trouble of moving my life away.
It was almost 3:00am when I walked home from The Polish one Sunday morning, maybe ten minutes, five short blocks to my flat. From the street, the sound of a party in one of the buildings, but in which, I couldn’t tell. Voices and music exploded as I reached the stairs to the second floor. Then silence, volume cut from the night, with the neighbor’s flat almost floating in darkness below. For the first time I heard the echo of my footsteps, hollow, in the concrete stairwell.
Opening my front door, I fumbled for the light switch. Then you screamed, Rose. I ducked for cover, cowering into the front door for what I imagined might follow, before opening my eyes. You and your friends, crossed-legged in a broken circle on the living room floor. I hadn’t yet bought any furniture. Maybe ten people at first glance, thick shadows on my dull mandarin carpet. No—five guys and two girls around my age: nineteen, twenty. Smoking John Player Specials, you chucked the black box around while a rat-like guy crawled toward people, one hand pulling a few fat white joints from a pocket in his jeans, the other tossing a couple of lighters into the center of the floor.
Ceiling lights burned in every room. Bugs kept flying in from the balcony through a sliding door I kept locked. The knob looked broken, the door off its rails. The bugs aimed hopelessly at the ceiling glow, bumping into the bulbs with a crackle, suddenly fried by the heat. Go back, I thought, stay out in the dark, where it’s safe. The curtains, limp and yanked apart, were the ones my parents had hung in order to help cheer up the place and give me a sense of more than a mattress on the floor and a rolling rack for my clothes.
My home phone sat in the middle of the floor, its twirled grey cord pulled all the way out from wall.
Sit down and shut up, you said. You don’t talk. Unless I say so.
The way you smiled—I couldn’t tell if it was a game. I told myself you were joking around. I’d look back and wonder how my brain defaulted to that idea. So much talking, shouting, people placing long overseas calls, in and out of the English language, deliberate, knowing I would never understand.
The phone sat free, suddenly—I counted the minutes. For some reason I was ready, no one looking in my direction. On my stomach, I kicked my heels against my butt, playing relaxed. My fingers crawled casually toward the receiver. Like they had nothing better to do.
Hell no! Your hand was pointing a gun in my face.
Shut up and sit down. Don’t move. No calls.
But… it’s my phone. My coat is back at the club.
My voice was tiny and useless.
Not your phone anymore, you said.
You kicked the walls then the bedroom door, screaming with laughter. Then threw yourself on the floor. I thought about the neighbors, willing for them to come upstairs and complain about something other than the laundry I hung on the balcony—the neighbors I hated but now needed the most. You wouldn’t let me get up for anything, the bathroom, or to close the balcony door. I thought it was best to sit cross-legged like you. Every move was a threat to what could happen next.
You turned up the music on my Sanyo boom box, tossed back your head, and drank Southern Comfort right out of the bottle. My eyes trailed over people and bottles and cigarettes and smashed-up plastic food containers and takeout paper bags strewn all along my mandarin carpet. I kept my eyes busy, smiling and laughing, hoping I’d blend in. I chatted away like everyone there was an old friend and gave up the few cigarettes I had left. Anything to distract you, so I could slip to the bathroom, even into the kitchen and do my best to jump from the window—it wasn’t that high. As the liquor bottle drained from being handed around, you seemed to forget about me. Both guys stumbled out onto the balcony, coughing, while the girls yelled, Bloody dickheads, can’t even handle your pot.
Real morning came—the one where daylight creeps through the darkness, etching out holes where everything seems lit in a less terrifying way. Everyone looked tired, smaller. The smell of sweat on unwashed men hung around in the room as the morning became still.
A screeching of tires and a horn honked in the alley, right in front of my balcony. You, on the railing, straddling it, told everyone it was time to go, your ride was here. That no one could leave by the front door. They had to jump from the railing like you. Then you whipped out the gun and took a shot right out into the alley—bang! You were crazy. No one ever knew what you hit. Something clattered to the ground—maybe metal, a thud. But everyone jumped right then, two at a time and ran off into the alley, and the house was suddenly mine: empty, panting, broken open.
Lifting the sliding door back on its runner, I locked the front door. Later I would explain running toward the village, needing to make it to any crowded place. Reality would show my figure scrabbling for something down in the alley. My hand frantic to find what I wished would be your gun, Rose. Then I started running. At the top of the hill and gasping, I willed myself to run harder. Nothing mattered until I saw the sign of the local police station. I ran past it. I had to catch a train and ride anywhere with random people. No trains came. From where I stood, edged up flat to the station wall, I heard a car backfire, hiccuping in the way I’d heard in my alley.
A train finally pulled into the platform, heading straight to the city. I jumped aboard, gripping the doors from the top as if I could pull them together. No one inside on their way to the office, no crush of bodies to hold me up inside the carriage as we sped away, so I pinned myself against the pole like it was my spine, straining to hear the twinge of metal on the tracks that we’d reached the next station, another station, and then another.
The further away I got, closer to the end of the line, the more I wondered how I could ever outrun you, Rose. How no one would believe what you did. How no one could help.
That’s when I jumped on a train at the next station back the other way to Ashfield. Past the platform I started running, my big toenail stubbing into the front of my steel caps. I was turning back, Rose, into a girl who did whatever she liked. Someone with balls, like you.
Cigarette butts littered my balcony. I stood in the light breeze with my eyes glued on the alley. I couldn’t look at my phone on the floor with the four Southern Comfort bottles lying empty nearby. The smell made me want to pass out. I thought about calling my parents. What I’d tell and not tell them. A truth I might force them to carry, maybe in exchange for mine.
Instead I straddled the railing, threw my head back toward the dark and starless night. Like some crazy figment from a mind gone wild, you came to me in an outline, in the alley, not filled in yet. Calling up from the ground.
Both of us, waiting.
And there I was, pointing a gun over the railing, steady, shooting into your outline. I counted the seconds, like a gunslinger, Rose. Stared straight at the place where you fell.
The still air calmed me, before it flooded with sirens.
Katie Barnes was born in New Zealand and studied classical ballet and acting before moving to the United States. In 2017, she was selected to attend the Bread Loaf Conference. In 2018, she was a finalist in The Iowa Review Awards, Hunger Mountain Awards and the 45th New Millennium Awards in literary nonfiction/memoir. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript.