Katherine thought of herself as an independent person. She was quite responsible. She was also wise with her money and so by the time she had graduated high school and turned eighteen, she was already arranging her secondhand furniture in her own apartment. She barely needed anyone unless it was for a desperate measure. Sure, she made friends with some of the kids in her school but she had separated ways with them. Besides, she didn’t think they would miss her.
Now, now, she’s surrounded by family and she felt like a puzzle piece that finally found its place.
“Hey, Plum!” called Jack from the kitchen. “Can I heat up the lasagna?”
She didn’t take her eyes off the screen of her phone. “Go ahead!”
Beside her, Davey was typing in his laptop, his concentrated gaze much like hers. He was working on an essay and gave no other details. Crutchie, on the other hand, was telling his story of how Finch had broken his arm after some stupid stunt that Albert and Race- Tony had put him up to.
It still felt strange.
“Then Tonio took him to the hospital,” finished Crutchie. “It was quite a surprise he wasn’t the one admitted this time.”
Katherine looked up at that. “Why? He’s usually at the hospital?”
“Just the one time, really,” answered Davey. “The guys keep putting it over his head.”
“He was in a bar fight,” added Crutchie. “He got beaten up pretty badly.”
“Did he start it?” asked Katherine.
Crutchie shrugged. “The other guy threw the first punch, technically.”
And then he recounted that story as well.
Jack finally joined them after a while and Katherine had helped him bring out the food to the coffee table.
It was both familiar and strange. She recognized their hugs and smiles. She recalled their little tics and quirks. She remembered them but the truth was that for so long that she has remained that estranged puzzle piece, it felt odd to belong in such a big picture.
“Specs said he’ll come by next week with the others,” spoke Jack as he scooped some pasta onto his plate.
“They’ve been cramming work, that’s why,” piped in Crutchie.
Davey snorted. “You do, too, Crutch. Don’t lie.”
Katherine had to smile at the sight of them.
She hadn’t believed in them months ago. She remembered them, yes, but she thought that that’s what they all were. Memories. She had refrained from even trying to look up names, afraid of what she’ll discover. She thought that it was just her. Her and her father but he didn’t even remember. No, she was alone for so long and she was making her peace with it.
Then she had ventured down to a little town and decided to watch a show in the theater. She had thrown up in the bathroom after the first act has barely just begun because Medda Larkin was there, illuminated by the stage lights as her voice rung out in the theater. She was just as beautiful as Katherine remembered her.
It had taken her a month before she drove down to that theater again. She watched another play and stood in the parking lot after, deciding whether or not to just leave. It was where Medda found her and the woman didn’t recognize her. She didn’t know her, and Katherine could have left but Medda was familiar and she was nice. She had asked her if she watched the show and Katherine told her that it was wonderful.
“Are you in college, sweetie?” Medda had asked.
Katherine had smiled sheepishly. “I’m taking a year off, actually, just to think things through first.”
And the next words that came out of Medda’s mouth would have put her down on the ground if she wasn’t leaning against her car.
“My Jack is in college now. That boy has always been fascinated with art.”
It had taken her months to go down to the university Medda had told her about. It was still snowing and she had forgotten to put on more layers because of how distracted she was all morning but the instant that she was engulfed into a hug by Jack, she couldn’t remember a time when she had ever been warmer.
After they had all eaten, Jack tried to get through Davey and his essay and so Katherine decided to wash the dishes. Crutchie had followed after her and jumped on the counter as he held a dishtowel, resigning himself to the job of drying the plates.
“It’s good to see you, Plum,” spoke Crutchie.
She smiled at the old nickname they had all given her way back then.
“You too, Crutch,” she returned, giving him a smile.
She had grown old with Crutchie. They had stayed together and there was a time when they waited for someone, anyone, to come find them. News came and went. They had learned of the fate of the others. They heard of the idle conversations in the streets and gatherings.
No one came back.
“You don’t have to go too, Crutchie.”
She was left alone.
“How are the others?” she asked Crutchie after a moment.
He shrugged. “Still the same.”
“Did you freak out?” she continued, turning to face him. “To suddenly have all those memories and finding out that the others are all alive?”
Crutchie looked at her. “Did you?”
It was her turn to shrug and Crutchie sighed.
“The memories were a lot to take in but when Jack found me, I was just crying more than I was freaking out. I thought it would be a difficult adjustment but… it turns out that the only thing that changed was the world and not him, not me and not us.”
Crutchie smiled at her and she returned it lightly.
“If there was anything that changed with us,” he trailed off. “We’re just freer now.”
Katherine didn’t mean to look at his leg but Crutchie had noticed it. He didn’t look offended or upset but she still mumbled an apology.
“I got hit by a car,” he began.
“It’s okay, Crutch,” she interrupted. “You don’t have to.”
He waved it off, simply. “It’s fine, Plum.”
Katherine frowned but leaned against the sink and clasped her hands together.
“I was eleven,” he continued. “It was around that time I was getting my memories back. I thought I saw Jack from across the street and you know how it gets when you see the people you knew in your dreams or when you remember them.”
It hurt. Katherine had felt the longing. There were mornings when she couldn’t get out of bed, wanting to just slip back into her dreams.
“I wasn’t thinking straight. I thought it was him, Plum. I missed him so much and I didn’t see the car that was coming. Since then, my leg just didn’t heal properly.”
There was silence between them for a moment and then Katherine started forward, burying her face into Crutchie’s shoulder and encircling her arms around his waist. He held her gently and she recognized it so well that it made her eyes well up with tears.
“You don’t want to take care of a nobody with a bad leg, Plum.”
“We’re gonna’ work side by side, Crutch.”
“It will be good, you’ll see.”
And it was good. It was better than she had hoped for. Her and Crutchie worked like siblings, always having each other’s back. They had banters, they cried together and they took care of each other. Crutchie was there for her and she was there for him until they both weren’t.
“Don’t stress, Katherine,” spoke Crutchie. “You might get those grey hairs early.”
She laughed against his shoulder.
That night, she stayed up all night. She didn’t want to go to bed. Instead, she lounged in her couch, eyes trained on the ceiling with her hands over her stomach where she had placed her phone atop of it.
“Stories ain’t ever gettin’ old.”
“They do, you lump. People are quick to forget when new heroes come.”
“I’s gonna’ keep this picture of us, then.”
“Why? You’s just gonna’ make fun of our ugly faces.”
“You punk, no, I ain’t gonna’.”
Katherine had been there, seated on the table with her face hurting from smiling too much.
“I’s gonna’ keep this ‘cause I ain’t gonna’ want to forget your ugly faces.”
The boys had made retching noises that day but Katherine saw how their bodies have twitched and how their expression had brightened and softened.
A band of brothers who had accepted her, who treated her as if she was one of them.
“It ain’t him. Some punk must have the same name as his.”
“It’s his name, Crutchie. He’s…”
“There was an explosion-“
They lived long enough to carry all the memories. Katherine had always wondered if the others made it. She always wished they had. They were all too young for the world to rain down on them.
Katherine grew old to hear and feel her bones crack at every move. She had grown so tired she couldn’t pick up a pen anymore. She had been broken enough that she let herself soak in the sun, hoping the light would fill in her cracks. The women had asked her what she was like when she was younger.
“Not like this.”
By the next week, the others with Jack had finally come, carrying take-outs and pulling her in for a hug. They were already telling some story about what happened in one of their classes and Spot- Sean gave her a look that Katherine assumed was ‘I’ve been listening to them for hours’.
Mush handed her a little potted plant while Blink whipped out from behind him an actual vase of flowers. She gaped at them as they placed them on the table. Specs patted her back.
“We missed you, Plum,” he said.
She responded by pulling him into a hug. She embraced all of them.
They crowded in her living room, watching films and feasting on take-outs. As she looked around her, she could see the big picture. It was easy to see it with their smiles and their banters. It was easy to imagine the world they used to belong in and the world they live in now merging together but there was something that kept pulling at her, telling her to lock herself up in her bedroom. Katherine didn’t even understand it.
It was easier to feel alone.
Weeks passed and she would stay cooped up in her apartment. They visited her from time to time, texted and called her. They were always a great bunch. She came down to the university when they invited her. They never questioned her why she rarely visited on her own accord. In fact, there were moments when Katherine thought that maybe they could see through her and that’s why they didn’t push her to tell anything.
Crutchie told her one time that they all had their own matters to face. Sometimes Katherine thought she saw it. She would see how Blink would look at Mush from across the room, an almost sad smile on his face. She would see Crutchie gripping his leg and Jack doodling on a piece of paper, his eyes seeming unfocused. They were there and she wondered if they saw hers too.
It was a quiet evening when her phone rang. She thought that it might just be Romeo, probably asking if he could persuade her into writing his essay. He always joked about it.
She reached for her phone on the nightstand and when she saw who was calling, her breath caught in her throat. She quickly set it down beside her and turned on her back to look at the ceiling. The phone went silent after several rings.
Then, it rang again.
She accepted and closed her eyes.
There was shuffling from the other line.
“Katherine,” came her father’s voice. “I’ve been calling you for months. You only answered my messages.”
She gripped her phone tighter. “I know, Dad. I’m sorry. I’ve been… busy.”
“Always hardworking. How’s college life treating you so far?”
There was a beat of silence. Her father called her name and she didn’t speak.
“What is it, Kath?” he asked. “Is something wrong? Are you still there?”
He doesn’t have his memories. He doesn’t know her. He doesn’t remember any of the boys he had looked down on. He doesn’t remember how she had first left his house and never came back.
It was only then that she realized that she was crying. She curled to her side and buried her face in the pillow, muffling her sobs. She could still hear her father.
He didn’t hang up but he became silent on the other line. He waited for her as she tried to regain her breathing. He waited as she wiped at her tears and hiccupped. He waited until she softly called his name.
“I dropped out, Dad.”
And he was still silent. Katherine stared at her wall.
“That’s okay, Kath,” her father spoke. “We don’t have to talk about that right now if you don’t want to. I just want to know how you are doing.”
Her eyes welled up with tears.
“I’m fine, Dad,” she managed to say. “I’m okay.”
And then she was sobbing again, repeating that she was fine. She didn’t know anymore who she was saying it to.
“I don’t want to live in your world!”
“You’ll never make it out there, Katherine. Who’s going to look out for you?”
“I don’t need you taking care of me. I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“So stop acting like one!”
Her father stayed with her until her cries subsided. He stayed on the line until she could breathe again. He stayed with her as she buried herself under her blanket. He stayed and told her that he would come by two days from now and she whispered an ‘okay’.
When they both got off the phone, Katherine didn’t sleep. She put on her jacket and shoes and left the apartment. It was 4 in the morning and there were still people out in the streets, only fewer. Katherine drove to the address that Jack had pinned on her refrigerator.
It was Tony who opened the door with his hair a mess and a blanket draped on him. Katherine heard a movie playing inside the apartment. She thought he must have been sleeping but it was Tony, for goodness’ sake.
“Plum,” he spoke.
He was staring at her puffy eyes but he didn’t question it. She remembered that one time he had toppled his drink on the table when she called him ‘Race’. He had smiled quickly and apologized for being clumsy. She remembered how Albert had sat him down and got him a new drink.
Tony reached out an arm to her and she let him bury her with him under his blanket. He led her to the couch and they both sat down. An old film was playing on the television. Katherine didn’t know it. She focused on the actors. She focused on the props. She watched the film with Tony as he kept her close to him.
When the film ended, Tony didn’t let go of her.
“I’m sorry for barging in,” she whispered, her eyes trained on the credits.
Tony shrugged. “Barge in all you want, Plum.”
“You could have been sleeping.”
“I wasn’t. I don’t. Sleep is for the weak. Look at Albert in the bedroom now.”
She cracked a smile and Tony rubbed her arm.
“Do you want me to call up Jack or Crutchie?” he asked.
Katherine shook her head. “It’s okay. I just didn’t want to be alone.”
She wondered how her life would have turned out if she didn’t wander to Medda’s theater or if she didn’t come back the second time. She wondered if things would have been as they were if she didn’t leave at the first chance she got. She wondered what would have happened if she never found them.
“You could take my bed, Plum,” offered Tony. “You need to sleep.”
“Can I just watch another movie with you?” she asked, instead.
He let her. She laid down on the couch and Tony placed her feet on his lap after putting on another film. Katherine still didn’t recognize it. Tony draped his blanket over her and she pulled it closer to her.
“Race?” she mumbled.
She was drifting off.
“Sleep, Plum,” she heard the boy say. “We’re all still going to be here when you wake up.”
And Katherine held on to that as she finally closed her eyes.