If, p.4

If, page 4

 

If
 



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  “What? What happened?”

  “I was mugged while walking home from work.”

  “Mugged? Oh my god! You see? That’s it, I am talking to Alec. We are going to help pay for you to live in a better neighborhood. I can’t have you living like this.”

  “No, it’s fine. I like where I live. My building is in an okay part of Downtown LA, I just have to walk through a couple of not so great blocks to get there.”

  “Well, then that’s just as bad.”

  “I don’t want to move. And you guys do enough for me. It was my fault anyway.”

  “How could it be your fault?”

  “I tried to be a Good Samaritan and it backfired.”

  “I could kill you sometimes, you know that? You and your big mouth.”

  “But you love me for it, too.”

  “I don’t recall that growing up.”

  My sister and I are different in so many ways. Of course, since I’m adopted, we’re not biologically related. She is actually the biological child of my parents. My parents had just the two of us. Let me be clear—I was never meant to feel different in any way. My parents were equally strict with us. But while my older sister did everything they wanted—the perfect petite blonde with the perfect accountant husband, and the picturesque little family—I was always wandering. I was the redheaded mixed girl (of what, I don’t know, but I think some percentage of black and white. The point is, I was physically different) with gorgeous facial scars. I wasn’t born ugly, just different from the norm, and as if God thought I didn’t feel different enough, he got someone to mark my face up for that extra umph. I never could focus in school, though my teachers always said I was brilliant. That was the reason my parents put me in dance. They thought it would build my confidence because I hated going to school, hated how the kids mocked me, even though my popular older sister did what she could to protect me. They also hoped it would help expend some energy and improve my focus in school. It did expend energy, but I think their hopes backfired. They wanted dance to be a tool to make me compliant, and all it did was make my desires wander more.

  “So what happened?” she asked.

  “I was walking home and I saw some people hassling a guy. I said something and then they started picking on me too.”

  “Oh my god. Bird, I really could punch you in the head.”

  “What’s new?”

  “So did they take your things?”

  “No, the guy who I helped suddenly turned into Chuck Norris, punched one, and wrestled the other. It was insane. One of them stabbed him. The cops came just in the nick of time.”

  “The attacker had a knife? Oh my god.” If she was wearing pearls, she would be clutching them. “How many were there?”

  “There were two. And one did, obviously.”

  “Did the cops catch the guys?” Her voice quivered.

  “Yes. Right away. One was at the scene, the other didn’t get far because of the ass-whooping he got.”

  “I take it you’re pressing charges?”

  “I don’t have to. The detective called me yesterday to say they’re taking a plea. I’m glad I don’t have to go to trial. Apparently, they are repeat offenders, so they will be doing some real time.”

  “Yesterday? When did this happen?”

  “A few days ago.”

  “And you’re now just telling me?”

  “I didn’t want to worry you.”

  “You were just delaying the inevitable. I worry about you out there by yourself. You’re young and beautiful and alone, and that makes you a target. You know that. You’re so young to be out there alone.” My sister always tried to remind me how beautiful she thought I was. I rolled my eyes.

  “I’m not alone. I have friends here. And you should come visit. I think you have this image of a scary place. LA is full of humans just like Madison is.”

  “But you don’t have family out there.”

  “Yeah, well I don’t have family back home either.” I sensed the hurt in her silence. “You know I don’t mean you.”

  “I know.” There was a pause, but then she changed the subject back to the mugging. Well, that’s what I would call it from now on, especially with my sister. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what really could have happened, I didn’t want her to worry more than she already did. She was already a bit neurotic as things stood.

  “What happened to the guy who got stabbed?”

  “Apparently, he’s fine.”

  “Did you see him after?”

  “No, he’s homeless, I think. He disappeared after he got stitched up. I tried to find him in the hospital, but he left before I could get a ride over there. And he hasn’t been in his usual spot since. I’d like to find him. To thank him.” The sick feeling returned to my stomach as I thought about what would have happened had he not stepped up. “Jordan’s boyfriend wants to do a human interest piece on him. But I don’t know about that yet . . . I’m still thinking about it.”

  “I bet you could raise a lot of money for him that way.”

  “I know, but something tells me he doesn’t want the attention. And I’m skeptical about those fundraisers. I’ve heard of those things happening before where the person just ends up in more trouble. Not that I wouldn’t do it, but I feel like in most cases it’s putting a band aid on a stab wound.”

  “An apt comparison.”

  “Not that I’m against it . . . I just want to speak to him first. I don’t want to thrust him into anything without making sure he’s okay with it.”

  Jessa sighed, as if trying to recalibrate after getting the bad news. Then a baby’s cry rung from my phone’s speaker. “Shit, I mean crap . . . that’s Emm. I should go.”

  “Okay.”

  “Bird?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re okay right? I mean with everything?”

  “I’m fine. I swear.” But I knew she wasn’t just talking about the mugging.

  “Okay. I love you, talk to you soon. And please be safe!”

  “Love you, too.”

  ASH

  AFTER SHOVELING THE plate of food Miller left on the kitchenette counter (next to a hundred dollar bill, which I pocketed), and making a few sandwiches to go, I headed back out to Downtown LA. I had slept about fourteen hours, and I was not feeling nearly as down as I had been when the muggers approached me.

  The incident awakened the need to get something out of me and onto a canvas. Unfortunately, canvas is expensive, and so is paint. The term “starving artist,” I am convinced, has very much to do with the cost of art supplies.

  I had to be careful with this urge, and that’s what was frustrating. That’s why it was safer for me not to paint at all. I didn’t want to turn anything on. I had a side to me that was frenzied, especially when it came to the things I was passionate about. The temptation to paint triggered other sides of me that couldn’t be controlled. It couldn’t always be helped, but I could minimize the risk.

  Every time I saw that girl, drowning in color and light, it lit that little spark in me. But I was able to dampen it. I only saw her for seconds at a time and my willpower wasn’t that terrible. But this explosion of chaos and adrenaline that we had experienced together pushed me to the tipping point. The sensory experience was overpowering, and while I slept, I dreamt about it: the crimson hue of her voice traveling in jagged waves across my vision as she yelled for them to stop. Watching her lavender outline turn yellow as she tried not to whimper in fear. Transparent shapes that floated in front of me, like shattered glass, as my anger rose. The constant stench of piss in the alleyway, overwhelmed by the smell of gasoline as that fuck thrust his hips against her.

  The scene was more vibrant than I had experienced in the past few years. Now I was forced to create because this time, it was more than a few seconds and it was more than watching her from a distance. We had made contact.

  So I had an idea. I went back downtown and bought a couple of canisters of shitty spray paint. Then, I went th
rough dumpsters, collecting empty cardboard boxes and flattening them. Once I had enough, I slipped into a building I was familiar with, and accessed the roof.

  I laid out all the cardboard, ready to convert the shapes, colors and lights that lived in my vision into a physical reality.

  I shook the can of bright yellow, my fingers tingling at the familiar sound of the bead agitating the paint. Then I started to spray. Red. Blue. Green. Spray paint swarmed the dull brown of the box that once housed someone’s Home Depot shipment.

  As I tried to focus on small details—the tweaker’s rotten teeth, the tear trickling down the girl’s face—my hand began to tremble. I gripped it angrily to still it, but the tremor remained and I threw the can down at the cardboard.

  I couldn’t get what I wanted on those pieces of cardboard. I was too afraid to get lost in the art. I couldn’t get off the meds that caused the random tremors. I was tense. I would not—could not—let inspiration take hold.

  I never had to try to paint. I was considered a prodigy when, at age seven, I was already creating stuff better than most adults. I could see things in my head and then my hand and eyes just knew how to manipulate the pencil or the paint to make it real.

  What made me unique at a young age was not just my ability to copy something I had seen, but to interpret things, make stylistic choices. It wasn’t until my mother noticed I was saying some weird shit like: “Sarah’s voice looks like fireworks,” or “Miller’s making my fingers cold,” did she get me evaluated. It turns out, not only did I have an ability to paint the world, but I flat out sensed things differently than everyone else. One thing fed into the other, providing an infinite well of creativity.

  Of course I had lessons and training, but my true abilities came from within, a frenzied hysteria of color, sight, sound, touch, taste. Anything worthwhile had to happen from complete openness. That meant no tamping down of emotions, and no stifling meds.

  So after a few hours, I kicked at the colorful flattened cardboard, frustrated and defeated. Maybe others would be pleased with the images on the cardboard, but all I saw was shit. Shit. Shit.

  I packed my cans of paint and headed downstairs. I guessed I would head back to Skid for a while. It’s the place where you don’t have to worry about getting ticketed for vagrancy. Enough time had passed that the girl would have gone on with her daily life and we wouldn’t have to go through the whole awkward thank you process. Maybe she wouldn’t even recognize me during the day. That would be ideal.

  I had been walking for a few minutes when I heard someone call out. “Hey!”

  I kept walking. I didn’t know anyone. None of my business. “Hey!”

  Shit. I saw the distinct tone and shape of the voice. Yes, sometimes certain sounds looked the same, but this was distinctly hers. I had admired it for way too long to not have recognized it.

  “Hey—you!” I tucked my head down and picked up my pace, hoping that I’d be forgotten.

  BIRD

  “Simmons, Fonteneau, Ortega, Swan, Falco. Everyone else, thank you. That will be all for today.”

  Another rejection, another day in the life of Annalise Robin Campbell, also known as Bird or Birdie. The sting never dulled, but I wouldn’t let it stop me. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, so I couldn’t be mad about it being hard. At least that’s what I recited to myself. The truth was, the thing I loved was becoming a source of pain for me. It used to be my escape. I could dance and forget about the ways in which I was different. But after a year and a half in LA, dance was becoming a way to shine a spotlight on that flaw. I just needed a friggin’ break, one break to remind me of what it was like to feel joy when I danced instead of pressure or disappointment.

  I pulled on my arm warmers, slipped my messenger bag over my shoulder and headed out the door of the Downtown LA auditorium that was just walking distance from my home. It was early afternoon and I was starving. I scanned the street for any cheap, good places to grab a meal, and then I saw him.

  It was like an omen. Two failed auditions already this week, and I had also still been unsuccessful in finding the guy. In fact, I was considering taking up Trevor’s offer to do the piece and the related investigative reporting if he didn’t show up in his spot by the end of the week. But there he was, right across the street, walking. It was like spotting a rare bird when you’re least expecting it or something.

  “Hey. Hey!” I shouted across the street but he kept his eyes straight ahead. His hands were dug into in the pockets of his beat-up army-green canvas jacket, which was part of his uniform on cooler days. His messy hair was mostly tucked into a beanie, his rucksack was slung over his shoulder. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw his gait speed up when I called him, though I wasn’t letting him go this time.

  “Hey—you!” I couldn’t believe I still didn’t have a name for him. I looked both ways and decided to try and beat a few oncoming cars as I darted across the street. I did, narrowly, and drew a few honks and expletives. “Hey!” I called again, chasing after him, then in front of him, planting myself in his path.

  “Hey,” I said again, out of breath.

  His eyes were even clearer in the daylight. He turned his face to the side and huffed as he looked back at me, impatiently. I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed, or angry, or both.

  “I was calling you,” I said, at the slim chance that my shouting, running, car horns honking and curse words in my general vicinity didn’t get his attention.

  “Okay.”

  “You don’t remember me?” I asked, almost hurt.

  He adjusted the bag that was sliding off his shoulder. “I do.”

  “Are you upset?” So far, my interactions with this guy were all a real treat.

  “No.”

  “Okay, well . . . I wanted to thank you. For saving me. I tried to find you at the hospital, but you were gone.”

  His eyes darted uncomfortably, and he nodded. Dammit, say something, will you? You quiet bastard!

  I sensed myself losing him. So I had to say something, anything to keep the conversation (if that’s what you want to call it) going.

  “My friend, he produces for KTLA, and he wanted to do a piece on you and what you did for me. We were hoping we could raise some money to help you get back on your feet.”

  The look he gave me made me instantly want to swallow that entire last couple of sentences back. “I wasn’t looking for charity. And I didn’t do what I did to get on the news, but thanks,” he said, moving to step around me.

  “Wait!” I said, sidestepping in front of him. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I just . . . I see you there all the time when I walk to and from work. And . . . I . . . I didn’t think you wanted charity, but what you did for me—you saved my life. I just want to do something to thank you. Don’t you understand what you did?”

  He bit the inside of his lip and looked down and away for a count. “I’m glad you’re okay, but we’re even.”

  “And you? Are you okay?” I asked. “I was so scared that it was serious.” I glanced at his torso and noticed he was wearing a fresh white T-shirt.

  “I was lucky. It was a flesh wound. Deep, but it didn’t hit anything and they stitched it up.”

  “I tried to visit you in the hospital.”

  “I know. You said that.”

  “Oh,” I laughed coyly.

  “I just wanted to get the heck out of there.”

  And now it felt like our conversation was coming to a real close. But I still wanted to do something for him. Clearly money and public recognition were not what he wanted.

  “So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked.

  He perked up a bit, the question catching him off-guard. “Hadn’t really thought about it.”

  “I’d like to invite you. It would be an honor to have you as my guest.”

  “Thank you.” It was not an acceptance of my invitation.

  “It’ll be small. Just my friend, Jordan, the one who walks me home most nights. I don’t know if you
ve noticed.” I felt kind of stupid assuming this guy even noticed me walking home. I never actually saw him ever look at me until the mugging. “Oh and his boyfriend. And it would be nice to have a fourth person. We’re all transplants, so we have our own little Thanksgiving.”

  He nodded, then looked up to the sky, tapping his foot. I assumed he was trying to find a nice way to say no. He had gotten considerably nicer over the course of this short conversation.

  “I just realized I don’t even know your name!” I said, sticking out my hand. Only after I did that, did I wonder if he was clean. He didn’t smell or anything, but he was homeless as far as I could tell and I couldn’t help the fleeting thought.

  “Ash,” he said, taking my hand. His hands weren’t clean. His fingers were covered in a medley of colors. It looked like spray paint.

  “Birdie, Bird . . . either works.”

  “Bird,” he recited back, and he cracked his first hint of a smile.

  “I’ll tell you all about it over a Thanksgiving meal,” I smirked.

  “I don’t know . . .”

  “Please, let me thank you.”

  Our hands were still locked, and we both seemed to realize it at the same time, abruptly breaking the connection.

  “Maybe.”

  “Okay, well, I live in those condos on 6th, between Los Angeles and Main, apartment 7b. We start around five. I’m making enough food for you to be there, and I’m a broke starving dancer. So don’t let it go to waste.”

  Another smile. This time it was a full-blown half-smile. I wondered what he looked like under the scruffy beard.

  “I’ll see you around,” he said. His eyes appeared to go out of focus, as if he was taking in my silhouette.

  “I’ll see you at my place,” I said, walking away before he could respond.

  BIRD

  BOTH JORDAN’S AND my apartment were filled with the aromas of Thanksgiving cooking. Cherry and pumpkin pies were baking in my oven, filling my place with a spicy-sweet fragrance, while the bigger items were prepped in Jordan’s kitchen. Between cleaning and cooking, it had reached four before I had even taken a shower. Jordan and Trevor stepped out to grab some last-minute items before the grocery store closed early, and with the pies now resting on the range, I locked my front door and hopped into the shower.

 
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