Katherine’s Shadow

Why are my pants on backwards?

Sarah felt the tag of her pajama bottoms itching against the bottom crest of her belly. She tried to lift her head and pop-rock whiteness exploded behind her eyes. She’d never had a hangover before, or she would have known what to call it.

Vaguely, Sarah remembered stumbling home. A girl from her class had supported her the full four blocks back to the dorms. Her armpit and the underflesh of her triceps still ached from where the other girl’s shoulder had held her up. Sarah stretched, raising herself up slowly. She remembered feeling acid, the taste of batteries, at the back of her mouth. Had she thrown up? She didn’t know. Her tongue felt dry and stale, but that was to be expected after such a night of hard drinking. Wasn’t it? Sarah pushed the heels of her palms against her eyelids in an attempt to stop the pulsating of her vision. What did people do in these situations? This was all new to her.

Sarah was aware of the emptiness of her dorm room then. It was just big enough for two twin beds, placed directly opposite of each other as close up to the cold, red brick walls as possible. In the extra space there were two three-feet-by-three-feet desks with matching shelves overhead, and two shallow closets flanking the one door. It was sparsely decorated with Third Eye Blind posters and neon throw pillows.

Sarah’s roommate was hardly ever in. For the fourth week in a row, she had gone home to her parents’ house in Aurora for the entire weekend. Sarah practically had the room to herself, most of the time. She wouldn’t say that it was lonely. It sure gave her plenty of room to work. She just had expected more from her first dorm experience. It would have helped to have someone much more…present, in a situation like this.

A knock on the door.

“Sarah? Sarah, did you make it back okay? Sarah, its Siobhan- let me in, please.”

Siobhan was a freshman, like Sarah, who sat next to her an early morning three-hundred level statistics class. She had been Sarah’s guide to the local house party the night before- down to fiftieth and King street, where the party there had already been a bust, up to forty eighth and Osceola, where they were some of the first to arrive- as part of a group of their classmates who had wanted to go out and get loose.

A burgeoning math major, Siobhan was pretty and moderately popular. Sarah had figured she was someone who was safe enough to cling to, this early on in her college career. Not unreachably perfect or overshadowing, but also not a hole-in-the-wall troll who would weigh Sarah down in public. A good stepping stone, to begin with.

“Hold on, I’m getting there,” Sarah said as she fixed her pants the right way ‘round. She was embarrassed by the amount of effort it took to slide out of her lifted bed, to steady her legs and shuffle slowly to the door. If this was what hangovers were always like, Sarah was never going to drink again.

Siobhan stood at the door, her eyebrows drawn together with concern. She had a small cup of McDonald’s coffee in her right hand, a tightly gripped, greasy meal sack in the other. The smell of it nearly made Sarah want to retch, at the same time that it made her feel urgently the emptiness of her own stomach.

“Figured you wouldn’t be heading over to the café today. Could barely handle the sun myself,” Siobhan said. Her tone was an uncertain apology, as was the way her clean green eyes swept Sarah’s room. What was she looking for? Siobhan set down the breakfast bag on Sarah’s desk, still looking uncomfortable. Sarah hauled herself back onto her bed, where she could rest the back of her throbbing head against the cold, hard brick. She patted the purple comforter next to her.

“It’s more comfortable up here,” she invited.

Siobhan clambered up beside, snugly sitting Indian-style, holding the small cup of coffee like an anchor between her hands. Her pixie short, flame colored curls were pinned down close to her head, emphasizing the soft freckles of her round, friendly face. Her hair was slightly damp and her features fresh, as if she had recently showered. Had she really come over right after waking? After that and getting breakfast, of course.

“How’s your head?” Siobhan asked.

“Like the inside of a broken strobe light,” Sarah laughed.

Siobhan wordlessly handed Sarah the dollar coffee. Sarah didn’t know if it was supposed to help her hangover, but she also couldn’t just reject it. So Sarah took the coffee, warm between her palms.

“I’m sorry if I made an ass out of myself last night,” Sarah said after a small pause, “I don’t know when I passed out but it couldn’t have been good.”

“You…don’t remember?”

“I remember wanting to throw up. I remember waking up on someone’s couch. I think Mikayla walked me home. You know, Mikayla Martinez? She almost had to carry me. Don’t think the D.A. noticed, though. I’m not in trouble, anyways.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s all I got. I suppose I might have thrown up on something. Someone? Woke up clean, though. Did you wipe me off? Or Mikayla?”

Siobhan pushed the heels of her palms against her knees. Sarah closed her eyes, letting the coldness of the brick wall seep through the nape of her neck. The colder her skin got, the less the room wobbled.

“You don’t remember anything, do you?” Siobhan said. Her Southern tone was strangely leaden.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“You called me Katherine.”

Sarah’s eyes flew open. Katherine. Her mind sharpened like a knife, and froze.

“What happened?”

“Well, you did throw up in the backyard around eleven. Cleaned yourself up, there. But you kept on going. Danced on the tables, almost broke a few plates before some guy pulled you down. You kissed Tammy for a dollar, though I don’t think she paid you. Slapped Kevin’s ass, too.”

“Holy cow, really?”

“Yeah. He seemed to like it, but you were way too drunk to be going home with him.”

“Shame.”

“You’ll thank us later.”

“I’m not allowed to thank you now? Did I pass out then?”

“No. Then the cops came.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. You were pretty gone. We didn’t know how gone yet, but you didn’t want to leave. I had to drag you out, basically. Almost put you on my back.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It’s alright.”

But Siobhan didn’t sound alright. Sarah took a deep breath and tried the coffee. It was, by then, lukewarm, tasting stale and bitter without cream. Sarah swallowed.

“You said I called you…”

“Katherine. Yeah.”

Siobhan looked down at the floor of Sarah’s dorm- the tacky, marbled blue carpet spread thinly across it.

“You screamed when you said it,” Siobhan continued, “You threw yourself to the ground and grabbed your stomach.”

“Did I?” Sarah’s voice was as flat, as empty as she could make it.

“You sounded…scared. Scared of me. Scared of me as Katherine, I guess. Who is Katherine?”

“Did I say…did I do anything else?”

“You told me you were ready.”

“For what?”

“To die, Sarah. You asked me not to hurt you and you told me you were ready to die with me. With Katherine. Sarah, you were screaming on the ground, you were curled up on the ground, and you were crying. So hard.”

Now Siobhan was crying, her skin mottling with a red flush deeper than the flame of her hair. She sniffled loudly, pressing the heels of her palms up to her eyes to stem the flow of tears.

“I’m so sorry, Siobhan.”

Sarah took another sip of the coffee, slurping loudly as Siobhan wept. It was cold, now, and flat. But Siobhan had brought it to her, had brought it when it was hot right after waking; to comfort her. Sarah would drink every drop.

“Katherine was my step-sister,” Sarah said when the coffee cup was empty, “She lived with us until I turned fifteen. She was never really…right in the head, but she was the only sister I had, you know?”

“She hurt you.”

“I don’t know if she really knew what she was doing, to be honest. Neither did I. I just wanted to be a good baby sister. She was so lonely and hurt. Our dad’s a bit…distant. He’s all she had, apart from me. Or so she always said.

“She wanted to kill you?”

“She wanted to kill herself, but she didn’t want to go alone. I promised her that I’d follow her, when she was ready. That she could take me with her.”

“Did Katherine hit you?”

“She was always so angry, and I was always there. She ran away when I was fifteen. Got caught in Utah stealing food and Monster from a Conoco. My mom wouldn’t let me go to her. She’d found my diary by then. Found out what Katherine had been doing. Made me go to counseling- me, her and my step-dad. Haven’t seen Katherine since, you know. But I still have dreams.”

“And you thought I was her.”

“I guess I did, Siobhan. I don’t remember a thing.”

Siobhan began to cry harder. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as if she had hurled. Sarah sunk down into her position, letting her legs dangle over the side of her bed, pushing the top of her head against the cold brick.

“I didn’t know, Sarah, I didn’t know. I was so scared, so worried, I….” Siobhan hiccupped and covered her mouth.”

“It’s alright,” Sarah said, closing her eyes. She folded her hands over her chest and breathed deeply. “It’s not like I go around announcing it. How weird would that sound? ‘Hey, my name’s Sarah, my sister used to hit me, what’s your major?’ I’d rather just forget about it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’m so sorry,” Siobhan repeated, though her breathing had started to descend from hysteria.

“Well you didn’t run away, at least,” Sarah conceded, “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“When you did pass out, we took you to Mikayla’s,” Siobhan protested, “and I came back. Without you.”

Eyes closed, Sarah grabbed the empty coffee cup and shook it. A smirk spread across her face.

“You brought me breakfast, didn’t you? I’d say that’s a good enough apology.”

“But…”

“You think those sandwiches are still going to be good?”

Sarah could hear Siobhan’s hesitation and the freeze inside her bones stiffened with fear. Siobhan had gotten up early, had gotten her breakfast, had come to see if Sarah was still okay. Siobhan had seen the darkest of Sarah’s memories, seen worse than just Sarah’s scars, and still had knocked on her door. Sarah squeezed her eyes shut tight, waiting.

“Which do you want- the sausage or the bacon?”

Sarah smiled as she thawed. Siobhan was the answer to her prayers. Maybe now the nightmares would be over.

“I think we’re going to be the best of friends, Siobhan. I really do.”

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