Just this morning I was at work, drinking coffee with that powdered cream that has too many ingredients, when I smelled the unmistakable odor of singed hair—an odor that, if you’re familiar with it, you’re instantly able to place.
I stood, heard some commotion in the row of cubicles behind mine, the ones with the window real estate, and I made my way over. It was a temp, nervously fidgeting with a Zippo, when a spark hit some of her blond tendrils. She was able to put it out quick, but not before that stench reached me, made me remember: Katie Liceraga.
You see, back then—during high school—fights were common. There weren’t any metal detectors, no security guards. Someone would say something, the wrong something, and a fight would start. Simple as that. Students would encircle the combatants—always a perfect circle, if I remember correctly, which I found odd—and it would only ever be a few hits in before a teacher or the principal would break it up.
Katie was a bit rough around the edges. Unmistakably pretty, but in that way where you knew she didn’t agree with it—had probably grown into it overnight and couldn’t believe it herself. She liked to pick fights with girls, wanted to show the world she was worth more than a face, I always thought, because these fights were regular—if not every week, just about—and the victims were always the same: girls bigger than her, volleyball or softball girls, the kind you’d tell her not to pick a fight with. But Katie would, and it was always after C Lunch, the latest of the lunch periods, the lunch I always had. I’d be walking back to the lockers with the guys, and someone would run past, brush up against us, and you’d hear that group chant start from around the bend by the special kids’ classrooms, the booming of feet stomping the ground, the hall shaking, and I’d always get there just as it was getting broken up by Mr. Siciliano, the tenth grade English teacher who had a reputation for flirting with the cheerleaders.
And it was always the same story, her strategy never changing: get the girl she was fighting in a headlock, pull out her busted-up blue Bic gas station lighter, and set her hair ablaze. Granted, it never lasted long, someone always put it out, but no onlooker, no matter how much they hated her, would every try to intervene when they saw Katie pull the lighter out—as if daring her to do it again, to prove she still had it in her. She always did.
The first time I was there for the whole thing…well, I still remember it: Katie was wearing a baggy flannel shirt and baggy jeans—a staple back then—and her hair was down, always down. The way she moved, danced around her opponent, would slap her a few times in the face and neck, step back—as if she’d had training—and then do it again until, in a whirlwind of angsty rhythm, she’d have the girl in a headlock. It was always the same and no one ever knew how it happened, how she was able to do this again and again.
Katie pulled out the lighter and the chanting mellowed. She scanned the crowd—I remember this—and our eyes met, briefly, but I don’t think she remembered me, that we had choir together in middle school, and then the girl’s hair went up. Katie released her and the girl’s friends were on her quick, the fire smothered, and everyone let her pass. Mr. Siciliano came out running shortly after, asked what happened but knew before we answered, and he found Katie down by the senior lockers. She was suspended—always with the suspensions—but she’d be back in school the next week, just like that. And you would think girls would learn, but soon enough, there it was: that fire dance of hers, that horrid smell filling the halls.
I was smitten with her. I saw her beauty, saw the hurt in her eyes. She called us names, the onlookers, threatened us and said we’d be next, but I found her tantalizing and wonderful. At one point I even thought of picking a fight with her so I could get close to her and smell her, ask her to get McDonald’s milkshakes and drive out to the airport to watch the planes like the cool kids did, but it never happened.
Junior year she moved away. Rumors swirled of her being pregnant and whisked upstate to an alternative school to get her diploma. I never saw her again. But sometimes, especially when I smell that horrible singed hair stink, I think of her and wonder where she is, if she’s causing a fight somewhere. I wonder too if she has children—and what she would do if she ever caught them fighting. I always picture her having a big back yard, the kind that takes all weekend to mow, and in the weekly bonfires I’m sure she builds with her family at the far end of her property—bonfires that roar two stories tall, fed with broken shipping pallets and old furniture she finds at garage sales—she counts all the ways it can set her free.
About the Contributor
Robert James Russell is the author of the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out, and the novels Sea of Trees and Mesilla, a Western forthcoming in 2015 from Dock Street Press. He is the co-founder and Managing Editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic, and the founder of the online literary journal CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.
Coast of Chicago - Stewart Dybek
This is a collection of stories very much about the memory of loss—about what we once had and no longer do; about how loss in all forms (love, family, friendship, place) haunt us for the rest of our lives.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals