Local Missing Girl Found Dead Again
I was there the night Katie Holmes disappeared. It happened ten years ago and I could still tell you what she was wearing down to her horseshoe stud-earrings. Of course, once the television news crews appeared in town, there was no shortage of people making that claim. Suddenly everybody knew her and everybody knew all along what had happened to her. Even the janitor at the bank had his observations regarding small towns and heedless violence. Satan has condemned us, he said, and became a meme that ricocheted around the internet for a minute. But I really was there and involved enough in what happened to want to hide myself in shame when the word came out they’d found her. You might say tragedy is like that; it makes powerless witnesses and confessors of us all, but some of us have more cause to tremble in the face of the truth than others.
To be clear, I didn’t kill her. I didn’t see it done. And I never wished harm upon her. In fact, ten years was long enough to convince me wholly of the fantasy she’d run off someplace better, a better place full of better people. I’d hoped and prayed she’d made good so arduously I’d even conjured an imaginary rich husband for her, an old coot who liked to dress her up like a star. But when I heard they’d found a body by the river—a bulging tarp nudged by a city excavator, a forklift dangling a leatherette purse stamped with the lyrics of a heavy metal classic—I knew straight away who it was. Katie wasn’t a bad girl who’d made good. None of us are.
When I first saw her, I knew she wasn’t going anywhere. We were seventeen and we were at school. She had her hair wrapped around a green plastic wedge and her jeans were pegged at the ankle. She was on one foot, then the other. I could see what she was doing: resting the bones of feet pinched into poor-formed shoes. There were spiral waves in her hair that began at the ear. A dead perm lingering. She was standing there because she had to be. There was no real desire involved. She didn’t have ambition. She could have looked at me then and seen the same thing I did, but she didn’t. A smile lit on her face like a tiny red wire charged and she picked up her bag. She had friends. They moved away together like bright toys.
Katie was the kind of girl you see going in the wrong direction fast and it excites you. She was beautiful, her face like a wide empty landscape, and a bit of an ideal to me. At that time, I considered myself something of a shit. I was learning how to roll joints as thin as toothpicks and I had a way of dressing that suggested a certain degree of experience with crime. It had come at me early, I wasn’t pretty. This is how it happened: five of them lined up and beat me until I understood. It was one of those things. No child is completely innocent of all evils and some groups of children might be classified demons. I wasn’t harmed in any way remarkable, but I was disabused of anything like fancy. Put it this way: there are some girls who know what they aren’t and aim toward becoming. They paint their faces and try to fit in. I went another way. I found somebody who had what I wanted and I started staring at her: Katie, Katie, Katie.
One day, she and I chanced to come into the woods behind the school track where I was spending gym class smoking. She lit a Virginia Slim and told me she’d seen a dog in those woods. Chalk white and great. Its eyes were ringed with red, its mouth foamy. No question the dog was sick, she said, but that wasn’t the thing. The thing was that she had talked to this dog because she thought it might be a messenger from her boyfriend, whose nickname was Wolfdog. He was supposed to meet her in the woods and he hadn’t. He’d never been late before, so she worried he might be dead. He was a reckless driver; maybe he’d taken his car into a bend too hard and died. When the dog approached, she thought maybe Wolfdog was trying to reach her through it, say something to her. She tried to listen for a message. In the end, though, the dog only nosed her. “Isn’t that funny?” she said. “It was just a fucking dog.” I thought to myself: there is nothing I would not give to be you right now.
Katie and I didn’t talk again for years, but I never lost my awareness of her. She was a fascinator, an invisible pin over my heart. By the time I was twenty-four, the men I got around with were the kind who needed a girl they could treat like one of themselves so they could avoid becoming decent toward women and still appear straight. And I was the kind of girl too cheap for positioning among the other girls. We came together in our failures with women and a serious occupation with the lower forms of entertainment, a favorite of which was to sit together in parked cars and watch girls walking. We watched them like you watch woods for fire. You monitor, you wait. You do very little in the way of movement.
There were cunts and sticks, plastic college bitches and dirt whores. There were all varieties of asses, pork and rubble, tits like bing cherries and bowling balls. Girls you’d fuck for a dollar and girls you wouldn’t fuck for a million dollars. The boys and I got ripped on canned beer and talked about how all of these women were wrong and sick, how they’d see themselves in this way someday and want to get down and die for it. We chewed up and spit out any female who chanced to fall beneath our gaze—all of them except for Katie. She was different. She’d stuck around in Athens for the same reasons we had—because it was all there was for us—and she was going at it harder than anybody. She was ruthless. She had the kind of back-alley celebrity that paid tabs in bars.
There were four of us then who could be considered regulars. Others came in and out, but were only notable for certain strange meannesses of which they demonstrated themselves capable. Most nights it was me, Goldy, Ricky, and Terry. And Terry was the one you’d know, if you were there. The other two were odd appendages. They dangled, swayed, and sometimes hit, but Terry was the one so hard you didn’t speak without him having a hand in your saying it. Terry was the one with the idea that if he could make a smile with actual knives in it, he’d be complete. He drew designs of this face of his with the measurements and exact angles of blades coming down for teeth. The rest of us were laughter somewhere in the room when he was there. We were the match struck, the door propped open when he was barreling through.
When I first fell in with the gang, Terry had me wasted on Amish fruit wine and standing on a table. He had a plan with this big ball of ace bandages. I held the ends while the bandages stretched to hard threads around me. He wrapped me ass to head, my arms clipped to my sides. I was blind and listing, breathing wet through the grippy rubber. “Now, make me laugh,” he said. I ran through all variety of bits, but in the end he said I’d disappointed him. He put me in his basement, cut the lights, and told me to find my own way out. The laughing came later when Ricky said, forgetting, “Where’s Laney?” and I wasn’t there. I could hear Goldy’s blast laugh, Ricky’s glad weight leaning into the floor. Down in the cool rot of the basement, beneath the stairs, I was thinking about how, if I decided, I could vanish. Not like disappearing in a sulfur flash and not like offing myself, because that was overdone. Vanishing as in ceasing to exist. Failing to attend myself. Those boys would come downstairs and find a pile of elastic with nobody in it. But I didn’t have that kind of power.
Despite the fact that Terry was a man I liked to think of as headed for death or jail once he left my side, we did have our moments together. He was never light with me, but whenever we were alone, he had a gentleness designed to make me feel protected. He took a gamble I’d appreciate that pose and it paid. When he came into my house, he’d do a look around. He’d flip out a deadbolt, flip it back in. He’d look to see if there was food in the pantry and ask me if I needed anything. Cigarettes, bread. In return, I let him in and I coddled him. He balled up in my bed with both my wrists in his crotch and told me he thought about things like love.
“It’s something you don’t need to think about to do,” he said. “Like blinking. You just do it. And when you do think about it, it gets all fucked up.”
“I’m not thinking about it,” I said.
“You don’t need to think about it. That’s what I’m telling you. Do not think about it.”
He was the kind of man who wanted a body all over him while he slept. He wanted a face in his ear and a woman’s legs twisted through his. Most nights, this configuration was of no risk to me. I was not fool enough to think of him as genuine, but I did feel a certain possessiveness borne of familiarity and I did appreciate the shield he put around me. I couldn’t have held off Goldy or Ricky on my own. I cherished the sight of his open hand taking one of them down for getting grab-ass with me. They knew not to try much—at least not in plain view—and together we made a lopsided facsimile of normal human friendship.
Generally, the four of us were lit on the weekends, drinking off our shit jobs and driving around the beltway. It took about half an hour to get all the way around the loop and if we didn’t have any ideas by the third rotation, my knees would start shaking. Worst-case scenario was Terry deciding he’d like to see me dance. I always felt like a genius when I remembered about a party, but sometimes I settled for suggesting they steal something for fun. I watched them unload cases of brand new baseball gloves from a high school gym. They tossed them into the river. Some nights they moved patio furniture from one yard to another; others, they plucked choice items from rental storage units; and some nights Terry went plain destructo. He broke windows, drove through those flimsy above-ground pools. It was all petty and pathetic, but it was something and something was better than nothing.
Near summer, we were out of ideas and had hunted the easy game. Terry got to rubbing his thumb under his chin while driving. He was bored and it was a fearful matter to think upon his unhappiness and what it could do to me. “It makes you want to die,” he said of the damp Ohio heat. He pounded his fist into the billows of cloth hanging from the ceiling between the staples he’d gunned up there. “There’s got to be something better to life than this,” he said. That’s when Ricky first had the idea of getting Katie involved. It came out of him like a fart. That easy. He was in the process of rolling up the window on his hand to see how long he could take the pain and said, simply, “We should go find Katie Holmes.”
“Go find her like how?” asked Goldy. He said this in his girl voice, lilting high on the end like his nose was closed off.
“I don’t know,” said Ricky. “Like drive around and find her.”
This idea of Ricky’s was no shocker. He’d had a story with Katie in it his whole life. It centered around a piece of gum she’d given him straight out of her mouth. They were going along in the back of the school bus and by some miracle she’d discerned his presence. “I asked her for gum because I wanted to talk to her, but she gave me the piece she was chewing because it was all she had on her,” Ricky’d say. It his telling, Katie didn’t hesitate. She stuck the pink wad in his hand. “She’s good. You can see this about her. She’s better than other people.” All of us had stories like this about Katie. Goldy and Terry were hung up on a skirt she wore while climbing over a fence. They talked about this skirt like it was made of dream. There was nothing random or less than serious about our decision to find her. We needed her; she was the best thing any of us could think to want.
At first, we thought for sure she’d show at one of the parks, drinking like most of the local punks used to drink: sprawled out, watching cans and junk burn in a fire ring. She never was. We spent a couple of weekends lingering like we weren’t lingering there for her. Terry said he wanted to get solid with some people and he did some leaning into cars. Investigating, he called it. “I’m learning the lay of the land,” he said. “Katie, if you get my meaning.” He swung his bony hips in a wide arch and Goldy and Ricky went off like fireworks—the little kind you step on. He liked to joke about how fucking Katie was going to throw his bones out of socket and whenever he made this joke he always laughed straight through the laughter of his boys. He wanted to show them that he could keep going forever if he wanted; he had the balls and the energy to blast through eternity.
Once we had achieved a kind of quiet, Goldy said, “You know she’s got to be good.”
Ricky said, “She better be, after all the experience she’s had.” He tugged at the jeans wadded in his crotch.
“She’s perfect,” said Terry, gripping Goldy hard by the ears. “And you don’t get to talk about her.”
Later, he turned Ricky’s nose in his hand until his boy broke in a cry and folded—all the while maintaining eye contact with me. It was a little show designed to swell my heart.
One Saturday morning, Terry and I were having breakfast like normal people might do and he was talking about his boys like you see fathers doing on late-night pay-per-view. In those movies where the fathers giver their sons the cash to buy their first whore, they always tell them not to worry, it’ll come naturally, they’ll know what to do. I moved his burnt-red hair around on his forehead while he stepped into the boots beneath my table. “Sure,” I said, and swiped at the dried egg on his face. “It’s human nature or whatever.”
“You don’t get it,” he said. “Some people, you have to teach them how to love. They don’t come out knowing on their own. Ricky and Goldy are ignorant of it. I’m going to have to show them how to do it.”
“You planning on giving them the first go?”
“The first go at what?”
He pushed my head into his lap, held me there like that, like a pet he was pressing into submission, until his breathing slowed. “Don’t be talking moral at me,” he said. He released his grip and sat me up. “We’re finding her and you’re helping us and that’s the end of it.”
The most we’d heard of Katie after a month of looking and asking was that she’d been around. There wasn’t a soul knew who where she lived or what her life was, but everybody knew her. After the parks were a bust, we scooted around the river sprawl, the usual garages. We hit the bars and we hit the markets. Nothing. And then there she was. In Chauncey. She was squatting low in one of those Plexiglas boxes they stick around so you can be contained while you wait for the bus. There was a picture of a couple eating chocolate-covered ice cream bars on the side and somebody slick had turned their treats into the word shit. Ricky laughed at this, pointed, and that’s when we all saw her. Katie. I felt like a fist had gone down my throat and squeezed my lungs to pebbles.
Having had it done on me, I knew what these boys could do. In my mind, Katie was made of unbreakable glass, but when I saw her, legs white as the soft belly of a fish and bent against her chest, I imagined something great and foul in her future. The details were unclear, but I understood it would probably involve humiliation and light torture. Terry pulled a U-turn, so he could talk to her from the driver’s side. He said, with his finger poking the sideview mirror as he pulled in slow, “What-cha doing out here alone?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“My friends left me. I didn’t know where I was. I thought there would be a bus, but now I don’t think so.”
“Nope. No buses tonight.”
At this point, Terry involved himself more fully in the mirror, getting at a strip of tobacco on his tongue. And then he decided to tidy his hair with the black plastic comb he kept in his breast pocket. The engine in his Pontiac was not keen on idling. It had the whole of the vehicle in a steady and terrible shake. But there we were, idling, while he preened. Ricky watched his beer get around in his can, ignoring Goldy’s imploring gaze, and then Katie started to walk away.
“Say something, motherfucker. Grab her,” said Goldy.
“You don’t just grab somebody,” said Terry.
“What do you do?”
“You wait, asshole. You be good.”
I considered this. Good. Good’s a lie told by many faces, but also the kind of word used by thieves when describing odds. Goldy bent the bill on his cap and pulled his spine straight in a line. “OK,” he said. “I got it.”
Terry pulled alongside Katie and said, “Hello, again, my lady.”
“Give me a lift?” she said.
And then she was in the back of the car, smelling like tropical punch. Katie did not look at me. No nods of assurance passed between us. No soft hello, and a little laugh, like women often issue when realizing themselves outnumbered by hard men. Her face flamed red in the light of the overhead. She smoothed her hair in the back and pulled her vinyl skirt over her thighs. There were zippers running diagonally on her top, which was an impossible puzzle, and she wore silver plastic bangles clear up to her elbows. Meanwhile, I was dressed in a pair of brown overalls. There was no comparing us. She was a full woman and no fraud. I was a sack of potatoes.
“Where you headed?” she asked. She was talking to Terry. Her voice was pointed straight at him. She made no notice of Goldy, turned in his seat, shaking a can of Schlitz at her, or Ricky with his knees bugging into hers. Terry held her eyes in the mirror. He’d re-arranged his features and was now wearing his nice-guy face. I’d seen this face before and I knew it could be persuasive, but not if he had to hold it for any great length of time.
“I’m just driving,” he said. He slid his hands along the wheel like he was demonstrating the concept of driving. Like he was showing her how it was done. “Just cruising along.”
“Right,” she said. “I get you.”
“Let’s go,” said Goldy. He hopped in his seat like a kid on a sugar binge.
“We’re going,” said Terry.
When he pulled onto old 55, headed into to Millfield, I knew the night was going to get mean on us. I knew it for a fact. Because one of Terry’s favorite places to go full on destructo was the mine disaster site. The collapse had taken out the men of the town in the early thirties and left it and its women near dead. Nobody knew anybody who lived in Millfield proper. Nothing there but abandoned brick stacks and a vacant post office. But there was a place at the head of the old mines to stand and remember the dead and rebar-covered holes in the ground. We only went to this place when there was serious drinking to do. Because you need a good hole to scream down when you’re dead drunk or near it.
There was a mist in the air as thick as cotton thread as the sun disappeared behind the hills. I looked across the car at Katie and she had a cigarette in her hand near her mouth and a pink lighter in the other. She held these two objects there and never brought them together.
“We’re going to have some fun tonight, am I right?” said Terry.
Goldy hooted in his seat, punched at the dash like he was warming up for a fight. “What do you want to do?” he said.
“I don’t know. Maybe take a look at some beers,” said Terry. “You like beer Katie?”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“Fine,” said Terry. “Fine, she says. What kind of answer is that?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what kind. It’s the wrong kind. The right answer is that beer is the best. It’s the very best on a night like this.”
“That’s right, man,” said Goldy. He rose his Shlitz to meet Terry’s and they both sucked one down, crushed the cans in their fists, and pitched them into the black and swift-moving night. It was what they did, always, a tradition of sorts, but this time it had the energy of a charmed violence to it. Like we were building up to the New Year and the world was going to die. We pulled into the disaster site and Terry took the car up at an angle. He wanted the headlights where they would have an affect. And that they did. In the night, the old furnace stacks looked like arms and the trees behind like gnarled hands. It was enough to make my stomach turn and ache with acid.
Terry said, “Here we are.”
What happened next happened quick, or at least it played that way in my head. Goldy whooped and screamed in the light of the highbeams. He danced like a goon, arms flapping big. And Ricky sat in the car, making like he wasn’t there anymore, failing to attend himself. Terry had Katie out of the back and they were walking. He had her by the elbow and was going fast and Katie still had her lighter in one hand. I could see them in the light of the car and I moved toward them on instinct. I was scared as hell, heart beating up my throat. When they moved out of the light, I tracked with sound. The night in the woods is dense, but I could hear Katie talking. She said she’d like her arm back and Terry said quiet. He said hush. I’ll kill him, I thought.
When I reached them, Terry had her down in the dirt and the leaves and was fooling in her skirt like he was shifting an old car. Katie and I were both screaming then, animal sounds all bound together and vicious. I was on Terry’s back, digging at his face and then my body was moving out and away, breath kicked out of my chest. I saw Katie get hold of a bar, a long metal rod left rusting in the weeds, and take it across Terry’s face. There was a sound and it slapped off the trees and down into the mines, the deep recesses still filled with dead air. It was like a clap, a sharp spark of sound, repeated. I thought he was dead, thought she’d killed him.
When I reached her, her face was coming at me. Blank. Nothing there but the parts that make up a face. We collided and fell together in the dirt and leaves and started to run. Terry pounded after us. “Come back here,” he said. Then his voice was high and strange. “Please,” he said. Katie and I ran hard until it became a burden to move and then we leaned together into bark and the rot of bark. We didn’t speak. We moved by urging each other on, pushing each other up into the hills and through them. The dark world was concrete and slow, the sound of our breathing the only I heard. At the top of the ridge, the cold air was so sharp it stung and this sting was the most wonderful pain I’d ever felt. It was my moment. The only one I ever got with Katie. The honest truth is that I was happy alone out there in the trees with her, feeling like we were both about to die. Happier than I’d ever been.
We made it to dirt roads and then we found a gas station with a phone. She begged a quarter off the attendant and then we waited on the berm for a town cab. Her legs were torn and red, her wide face was muddy, and she’d lost half of her press-on nails, but she was standing like she might for any ride she hoped to catch. Her hands fooled in her hair, arranging, and then she worked on her snagged and rumpled clothes.
“I remember you, you know,” she said. “From high school.”
“I remember you too.”
“You and your boys were looking around for me. I heard that,” she said. “Well, you found me. Here I am.”
“I didn’t want this to happen. I tried to help you.”
“What did you think, we were all going to make friends?”
What did I think? Some time passed with truckers speeding past in the night and our shoes messing in the gravel.
“He your boyfriend?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s always somebody’s boyfriend.” She looked me over. “We’re not going to be friends, OK?”
After that, we didn’t talk and we didn’t look at each other. I knew what I was to her and I knew what I wasn’t. A cab pulled up in the chalky dust, she dropped me at my place without a word of farewell, and that was it. I was alone and Katie fell back safely into mystery. And that’s exactly where this story should have ended, but of course it didn’t. Because time keeps happening. You can try to make life hold in a decent spot, but it never will. The other problem is that life always heads in the direction you’ve knocked it. Like the trash they dump in space. It’ll keep on going that way forever unless it collides with something else.
The boys and I got on with pretty much the same routines, only they were obvious now as marred and strange. Terry tried to make it work, but he couldn’t look at me. I was a reminder, as was the bent nose he wore on his face. He clung to the hope he might get Katie alone and repay her the sting she’d put into him, but the word on the street was that she was around with Paul Rose. They called him The Rose and he was as mean as he was lean. He could take a bottle and spin it into a person’s head from a great distance and with great accuracy. He was a drunk as sharp as scissors or knives and a sloppy amateur like Terry could never hope to match him. I took it as a blessing that Katie and The Rose had found their way to each other. It meant she was protected—or, at least that’s how I thought about it at the time.
Fall slid in and out and then winter showed up as wretched as ever and erased what little there was to do in Athens with white. Bands would come, though, when it got cold enough outside. There were five bars in a line on the street and they’d go down it. When they got to the end, they’d go back up. This was the sort of music nobody cares about now because it was only the grit who cared in the first place. Katie and I got into it, but not together. We weren’t friends, weren’t enemies. We were simply there. All of us. Terry was helping himself up the skirt of a barmaid at the Cat’s Den, Goldy and Ricky still tugging along behind. We did our best to ignore each other.
Katie and I spoke maybe three times then. Leaning into my bangs with her cigarette once, she said, “Looks funny when you think about it,” talking about the way the guitars hung and where the hands fiddled. Funny. That’s all she said and then she drew back like a swung door. In the bathroom, she once held my beer while I pissed. Her nails made a beat on the glass that was counter to her boots in the water on the floor—like a sign of some vast disconnection. Returning the beer to me she said, “It’s the least or the most I could do.” Or, maybe it was the other way around. I don’t know. I do know for sure that she told me I was dancing like a fucking faggot when I chanced to bash into her on my way through the moshing crowd. “Sorry,” I said, and I was.
It was the night Hard Rocket was making a point of spitting whiskey at anybody close enough to touch them that Katie showed up in a dress made of pulled net, skin booming through in triangles. No question she was something in that dress, cigarette like a wand directing attention. Her hair was up in a silver cone, clipped at the back, and bird’s wing of blonde sat on her forehead. Next to her The Rose looked like a stepped on smoke. He was dirty, bent in the knee, and his head leaned low on its pivot. He became more accurate in his paranoia when drunk. He could sense a shift in a room, a look hanging too long, or a step too quick, and he moved like light to correct such transgressions with a unique and terrible violence. And yet somehow it was still surprising when it happened, when trash finally collided with trash.
We could have passed that night, quietly stewing in our own private frustrations, and gone on from there to meet a dozen, or a hundred other such nights, the same place and the same people like a pattern repeating in wallpaper. But Terry came in with his open hand on Katie’s lower back and that’s what set off The Rose. Good old Terry and his big man routine, laughing it up over a beer he’d spilled in his crotch, saying he thought maybe she’d like to help him out of his jeans again. The Rose was on him fast, making his hand bend in ways so wrong it seemed free of bone. It was the kind of scuffle that didn’t make logistical sense. A laugh came out of The Rose that made me think for a moment that it was a joke, the kind of wrestling men do when they’re happy and half in love with each other. Like brothers do in the carpet over some sport on the television. But then he took Terry’s pants down and made a bitter showcase of his sad underwear.
I knew Terry must have been mortified—not to mention in pain—but he pulled up his pants with one hand and made a crack about how he should have chosen some other line of work. “How in the hell I’m going to paint houses tomorrow is what I want to know,” he said. Goldy stood there and shrugged. Ricky said, “Shit, man. Are you OK?” And Katie was on the floor in a pissed-off hiss that didn’t jive with the blood getting out through her eyebrow, where she’d been hit somehow. She took things out of her purse and put them back in. She examined her lipstick and moved her house keys around in her hand. She shook a box of cigarettes near her ear. I had the very distinct thought that she looked like a child playing with her mother’s bag.
It was clear she needed help. And I wanted to help. I wanted to get big. Bigger than anyone I’d ever been. I imagined myself as one of Terry’s pictures of his re-imagined self. Arms the width and strength of fire hoses, a face hard as metal, eyes like bore knives. I imagined taking this big me, this body made of broken glass and barbed wire, and going to her. I imagined cutting through them all, Rose and Terry, Goldy and Ricky, all of them. I wanted to sit on the floor with her and help. I wanted to pretend with her. Maybe we could both go back to the little girls we used to be. But what I did instead was nothing. Worse than that, I did nothing for a reason: I was afraid she’d recognize me. We’re not going to be friends, OK?
The Rose got to her. He slammed her fake leather bag into her chest and straightened her out with a knee in her back. “God damned whore,” he said. He carried her out of the bar like a doll and she was simply, impossibly gone. It wasn’t like when she’d gone off before. You didn’t hear of her having been here or there. You’d didn’t catch word of the latest trouble she’d been into. A forced silence came down upon Katie and it stayed there for ten years. When they picked up The Rose for another, entirely unrelated matter, he confessed of his own accord, depressed over the life sentence he was already facing.
He was the reason no one ever saw Katie again, he said. He’d taken her outside the bar that night and hit her too hard. He’d covered her face with his hands until she’d stopped breathing. There were others there at the time, though nobody brave enough to speak against him. And then they had the body, buried in the dirt down by the river trails, exactly where The Rose had said he’d put it. Local Missing Girl Found Dead Again. That was the improbable headline. Because she wasn’t the first—she wasn’t even the first named Katie. “What kind of place is this?” you heard them saying on the television, the news people in their careful shirts. All of us still rotting here know the answer. It’s home.
In the life I imagine for myself, I get to Katie that night in the bar, I make it despite who I am and who I’m not, despite everything. We leave, her hand in mine, and then we drive away. Now we’re in a parked car, Katie and I. We’re right here. This is the parking lot of the old elementary school. At night there’s nobody here, so it’s OK. She’s got the window cracked for the cigarette burning near her thigh, sending up fists of smoke. You could tell her to pay better attention, but maybe she is and she doesn’t care if she ruins her skirt.
“Did you know that I went here for school?” she says.
“Of course,” I say. “We’re friends.”
She laughs like a thousand blanks shot and returns to her cigarette. She says she wishes I weren’t so wrong. I say I wish that too. Soon, there is weather. It rips through the swings on the playground. Empty seats bashing, swaying. It looks like childhood, fast-forwarded. Don’t worry, I tell her. We end up safe together.