It was one of those moments where the stars aligned, or maybe it was
that fate stepped in, or was it that her prayers were answered?
Whatever cliché you wanted to call it, the fact was that if it wasn't
for the guy who pushed past her and made her stumble into a pile of
slush that then squished into her Chucks, causing her to stop as she
tried unsuccessfully to get it out of her sneaker before it melted into
her sock, Kathy would have never seen it.
She didn't even realize there was a coffee shop in that particular spot despite walking past it nearly every day for the past four years; but in a city of thousands of coffee shops, you couldn't really blame her for not noticing it.
The ice soaking into her sock momentarily forgotten, she stared at the chalkboard sign propped against the open doorway. Her mind had to be playing tricks on her. But there it was, scrolled across the black surface in that cheerful handwriting that seemed to be a requirement for every chalkboard sign in the city. His name. In purple chalk. That part made her smile, thinking about how much grief his brother would give him if he saw his name in purple chalk.
That name still did funny things to her stomach. Suddenly, it was like she was thirteen again and he was protecting her honor, or whatever silly fantasy she had cooked up in her brain when he'd punched Matt Wilcox in the eye. Kathy could barely think about him back then without blushing madly and stumbling over her words. She was starting to realize that not much had changed.
It had been years since she'd seen him. Years since she'd given him any thought beyond a moment or two of nostalgia. So much had changed. She was a different person – the braces came off, the glasses were smaller and she'd finally figured out more or less what to do with her hair. Add an independence she didn't feel until she moved to New York on her own, and she bore little resemblance to the awkward girl in middle school. She doubted he would remember her.
Someone pushed into her from behind, making her realize she was standing in the middle the usual rush of people moving from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and she was going to get trampled soon if she didn't get out of the way. It was a split second decision, one that had probably been decided for her ages ago by whoever controlled the universe – wow, her creative writing professor would be cringing at her sentimentality tonight – and an unknown force propelled her past the sign, through the door, and into the warmth of the coffee shop.
The place was cute with a hipster vibe that seemed authentic rather than manufactured by some interior designer who decided that neon lights and black walls equaled trendy. No, this place was comfy and rumpled with scarred wood tables placed haphazardly around the room and overstuffed couches lining the walls. Colorful artwork cluttered up the walls in every available spot; little business cards with prices were tucked inside each frame. It was just the kind of place she loved discovering when she took the time to do more in the city than go to class and work.
She took a seat with a clear view of the stage but still relatively hidden and off to the side. She dropped her messenger bag on the floor and took her gloves off, stuffing them into the pockets of her coat, looking around as she did so.
The place was almost full – not bad for three nights before Christmas. Most people she knew were on their way home or out shopping before heading on their way home. That was one thing about being a college student, if you had no home to go to, things got pretty lonely around holiday time. A friend from school had offered for Kathy to go see her parents with her, but she'd tried that a couple years ago and felt dreadfully out of place. Plus, her cat Horatio hated change and spent the whole vacation pulling his hair out. No, the two of them were much better off spending Christmas together, alone in their tiny loft above the bookstore. Plus, she finally decided to trade in her supermarket points for the free turkey this year instead of the tray of lasagna, so she was either going to burn the place down or have a nice home cooked dinner. She double checked her fire extinguisher the other day, just to be on the safe side.
There was a poet on stage … reading poetry … kind of badly. She cringed slightly as she listened, the writer inside of her dying a little. She loved poetry and what this girl was doing to it should be a crime. A waitress stepped up to her table and smiled, asking Kathy what she wanted. Oh, right, Kathy thought, I'm in a coffee shop.
"Um … chai?"she said, though it came out more like a question.
"Size?" the waitress asked.
"Venti," she said without thinking and the waitress sighed. "Sorry," Kathy quickly added. "Habit."
"So, extra large. Anything else?" Kathy shook her head no and started to remove her layers of outerwear. She unwound the multicolored scarf from around her neck and let it pool on the table, next was her parka, and finally her knit hat. Her hand flew to her hair just as the poet wrapped up to half-hearted applause and someone in an apron stepped up on the tiny stage and proceeded to introduce the next act. Her hair was a flattened mess, but there was nothing she could do about it, because the next act was already up on stage and sitting down on the stool and pulling the strap of the acoustic guitar over his shoulder and adjusting the microphone and testing it and … making her heart leap into her throat.
Clichés be damned, Jack Mercer still took her breath away.
"Do people call you Kat? 'Cause it should be more like Dog. Woof, doggy. Woof."
Kathy clutched her books closer to her chest and tried to block out the words, but it was so hard. She felt her eyes start to fill with tears but she willed them away. Being called a dog was one thing, a cry baby would be something she'd never live down.
Matt Wilcox had decided that year that she would be his special target. She had no idea why. Nothing had changed – she had braces and glasses last year and he'd never even given her a second glance. Now it was a constant chorus of barking from him and his dumb friends, and to make matters worse, the bus routes changed and now he was on the same one as her.
There was nothing worse than climbing those steps every morning, dreading the inevitable. She could feel his beady little eyes as soon as he spotted her and his rude comments would start before the bus driver even had a chance to close the door. It didn't help that she didn't really have any friends on the bus – well, it really didn't help that she didn't have any friends at school at all, not since Lisa moved away over the summer.
After school was just as bad as the mornings because they had to wait as a group for their turn to board and, as luck would have it, they were the last bus in line – always. It was like Matt thought of things to say all day just so that he'd have new material for the wait. She'd just stand there, quiet and still, as he dished it out. Everyone else would stand apart from her – some would glance apologetically at her, but not do anything. The others would snicker and laugh, not joining in, but just as hurtful.
She wished she was strong. She wished she had the guts to just tell him to go to hell and spit in his face. But she knew that would just backfire and make him laugh harder.
Suddenly, Matt reached out and grabbed her arm, making her drop her books.
"Let me go," she cried out, trying to pull her arm from his grasp.
"Stop being such a bitch and just bark once for me," he said, taking a step toward her.
Something took over and she stepped down hard on his foot, but Keds weren't much of a match for leather Nikes and he just laughed in her face.
"She said to let her go," a voice said, cutting through the laughter.
"Beat it, Mercer. This doesn't concern you," Matt spat, not taking his eyes off Kathy. His grip was hurting her arm and she was certain she was going to have bruises.
Kathy glanced behind Matt and her gaze locked with that of her would-be rescuer, the only person in the three weeks since school started who actually had the guts to step up and say something.
The only guy in the seventh grade to wear a leather jacket and play guitar and smoke cigarettes under the bleachers. He was tough, and the rumor around school was that he killed a guy back in the fourth grade for trying to take his milk money. Yeah, Jack Mercer was pretty awesome.
Jack tilted his head to the side and hooked his thumb in his belt loop. If it wasn't for the fingers biting into her arm, Kathy was certain she would have sighed at that moment.
"Let her go, Wilcox. You look pretty fuckin' stupid right now, you know," Jack said as he took a step forward.
Without warning, Matt released Kathy's arm and she stumbled over her feet and landed hard on the sidewalk. "Happy, Mercer? I let the loser go."
Actually, the word 'go' was more of a 'g' sound about to become the word 'go' but not quite making it because just as he was saying it, Jack's fist connected with his eye and sent him flying backwards onto his ass, right next to Kathy on the sidewalk.
"You're the only loser I see here, Wilcox," Jack said coolly and the kids who had gathered around to watch the short fight started to laugh. This made Matt's face turn bright red, then purple. It actually kind of matched his eye, which was quickly swelling shut. Kathy doubted he even noticed.
Scared he might go after her again, she started to try to stand, but winced when she realized she must have twisted her ankle on the way down. A hand appeared in front of her, fingers open and palm up, and she glanced up. It was Jack and he smiled. She tentatively placed her hand in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
"Are you okay?" he asked and she nodded dumbly, suddenly unable to speak, not sure where all her words went.
He bent down and picked up the books she'd dropped. He handed them back to her and stood there awkwardly, waiting for something, probably for her to say thank you, but she couldn't get her mind to work. She just stared and he just chewed on his lip and rocked back on his heels. Suddenly, a car horn sounded, followed by a shout of, "Jackiepoo, say goodbye to your girlfriend and move your fuckin' ass."
Jack let out a breath and groaned. "Uh, that's my brother." He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. The guy in the car honked again and Jack grimaced. "See ya around, um …"
The bus pulled up and Jack stepped back, taking a couple of steps in the direction of the car that was waiting for him. "K-Kathy," she stuttered, suddenly finding her voice. "My name is Kathy." But she couldn't be certain he heard. He was in the car and had the door shut before she could finish the sentence.
Matt Wilcox got up from the ground and glared at her with his good eye while he held his hand over the other one that was already starting to bruise. "You got lucky, Fido."
He stormed onto the bus and Kathy realized everyone else was still staring at her. She brushed her hand through her messy hair and straightened her glasses. Her ankle hurt a little, and as she limped to the bus she could hear the whispering that started up behind her.
"Did you see how Jack Mercer just flattened Matt?"
"Why would he do that?"
"Do you think he likes her?"
"I heard he was in prison for stabbing a guy."
Kathy couldn't believe it, but she was actually excited to go to school the next day. She wondered how hard it would be to find Jack's locker. And she remembered that they had math and art together. Maybe she could help him with his math homework, and she could ask him about the art project she'd been having trouble with, and …
Sighing, she leaned her head against the grimy bus window and smiled.
The chai sat forgotten, growing cold as Kathy stared at the stage. Her breath caught in her chest, like the smallest movement would shatter the moment. She couldn't explain it – it felt like her heart was breaking but she didn't know why. The Jack she remembered never played like this, never sang like this. It was beautiful and rough and haunting.
After all these years, she figured she would have been the one to change the most.
She was beginning to think she was wrong.