Bubble gum, feet up on the dash, a ring on her left index finger that Megan keeps twisting, round and around.
"I told you to quit calling me that."
She laughs and snaps her gum. The ring keeps twirling. "Yeah, but you didn't mean it."
"I’m serious, Megan. I hate it.."
"Fine. Jaclyn. C'mon. Let's go."
I put the key in the ignition, turn it over. The car starts with a chugging sound, same as always. I check the mirrors and the windows of the house, trying to see if my parents are awake, if any lights have come on inside.
"Fucking finally," Megan laughs. She rolls the window down and spits out her gum into the neighbor’s bushes. “Barthe’ll meet us there.”
"Yeah?" I throw the car into reverse and back down the driveway slowly. “What’s the best way to get there?”
"Exit 284. Left on Harrison, then right on Meridian. You can park on Denny."
Megan pulls out another piece of gum, shoves it into her mouth in one fluid motion, and blows a bubble. Cinnamon, this time, but she can blow bubbles with anything. "Fuck yeah."
Barthe and I were friends first. His name wasn’t Barthe -- that was what we called him, because his real name was too horrific to be spoken aloud. He lived four houses down from me, and he was the only kid in the neighborhood that was anywhere near me in age. Our moms knew each other, and we’d been forced to play together as kids. We had an easy truce over the years, which evolved into an easy friendship.
Barthe was the one that had named me Jake. It had been cute in elementary school, when I was a tomboy and didn’t want anyone to get ideas about dolls or cute dresses. I hadn’t minded it in middle school, either. In high school, though -- I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to reinvent myself and become something other than plain old Jake. The summer between middle and high school, I discovered makeup, and found dresses that didn’t make me want to immediately rip them off. I grew out my hair and started caring about my appearance, as Mom put it. I’d realized two things:
First, I didn’t need to reject all things feminine. I liked some of what was coded as being for girls. I liked feeling pretty. Dolls weren’t my thing, but nice outfits were.
Second: no one was ever going to want to date me if I kept going by “Jake”.
Barthe had taken to calling me by my given name, Jaclyn, easily. He kept up with it. He’d given me the nickname, and he had no trouble switching back.
Megan was the one that rebelled.
I met her in homeroom. I introduced her to Barthe, and that was a mistake. They started dating not longer after, a “torrid makeouts in the halls of the high school” kinda thing, where I stood awkwardly off to the side and wondered when we’d decided that we were going off to war, not just to fifth-period English. They had an on-and-off thing that I didn’t really understand. Megan would tell Barthe to do things for her, and he would, and then he would break up with her, or she’d break up with him, and they’d both confide in me about how they knew it wasn’t permanent, it was just “too early” to get serious about someone. This lasted through sophomore year. At the beginning of junior year, they settled in and decided that they would date until they both graduated, at which point they’d break up -- but I wondered if that was actually going to happen. It was the summer between senior year and college, and neither of them had pulled the trigger yet. Megan kept saying they were going to break up, but it hadn’t happened yet.
“Park here,” Megan says, pointing to an empty spot. “Barthe’ll meet us out front. God, I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Uh-huh,” I say, pulling in, grateful that it was an extra-long spot where I wouldn’t have to parallel-park. Sneaking out was one thing. Explaining to Mom and Dad that I’d winged another mirror trying to parallel-park when Megan and I were supposed to be having a sleepover was something else.
I shift into park and turn the car off, shoving the keys into my pocket. “Are you ready?”
“Almost.” Megan spits out her gum again, quickly and expertly applies a coat of lipstick. “What do you think?”
Her lipstick is a deep red, almost black in the light. She looks -- older, and not in a good way, but I know it was what she intended. “Looking good.”
“Here,” she says, handing me the tube. “You should put some on, too.”
I sigh and flip down the visor, look at my lips in the mirror and open my mouth to apply it. One quick swipe, and -- “There.”
“There. Now you look…good.”
I eye myself in the mirror. Heavy eyeliner, pale foundation, dark lipstick. I look...different. I couldn’t say how. I was too used to seeing my face in the mirror.
“Let’s go,” Megan says, and pops her door open. I follow after her silently, hitting the lock button on the way out.
No turning back now.
The first time we snuck out, it was Barthe’s idea. He wanted to see Megan, but her mom had forbidden them from meeting when there wasn’t an adult to chaperone. Word of the desperate kisses in the halls of the high school had gotten back to her, somehow (we were never sure how), and she’d decided that Megan was likely to get in trouble if left to her own devices.
“You count as a chaperone, Jake,” Megan said, grabbing me and pulling her with me. “Come on.”
We were supposed to be having a sleepover. I, naive, had brought all my sleepover gear with me -- the sleeping bag and flannel pajamas that were supposed to be required. It was the first one I’d had since sixth grade. I hadn’t known Megan very long, but this felt like the beginning, how we’d become best friends, and I was excited.
“Let’s go,” she said, and slid her window open silently. The screen was broken -- I think her mom must have known, on some level, that Megan was the one who had ‘broken’ it, but she never called for anyone to repair it, and she didn’t do it herself.
She slid the window open and we climbed out, swinging first one leg and then the other, arching our feet to reach the ground, four feet down.
Barthe was waiting.
We walked to the park that night, and they didn’t do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with. A lot of kissing, sure, but I was used to that from school.
Mostly, we looked at the stars and talked about what it was we were going to do once high school was over -- if it was ever over, as Barthe was fond of saying, his voice gloomy.
The first time was such a non-event that we started doing it regularly. We snuck out of Megan’s house, or mine, and we never got caught.
We didn’t go anywhere interesting. Mostly just the local Wal-Mart, open 24 hours, or the gas station. The clerk knew us by name. We didn’t shoplift or do anything worse than sneaking out. We just...went. We wandered.
When Barthe told us that Crows was playing -- Crows, the band that Megan loved and I dutifully, as the best friend, at least liked -- I knew we were going. Our parents would never give permission, and I knew it would be another late night adventure.
“There it is,” says Megan, pointing down the dark ribbon of the road in the streetlights to the nightclub. “Can you see the marquee?”
It’s one of the old ones with removable lettering. “JUNE 28”, it reads. “BEDHEAD @ 10 PM, CROWS @ 11”
There are other bands listed, but they’re not important. Nothing is as important as this, this moment, walking quickly down the sidewalk, my arms hugged to my chest, trying to keep up with Megan as she near-flies over the pavement to the club.
“There’s Barthe,” she says, and I spot him, standing on the sidewalk in the soft golden spill of light from the cracked door. There’s a group of people standing around the entrance smoking, and the scent of cigarette smoke is heavy in the air.
“Megan!” he shouts. “Jaclyn! Over here, I’ve got our tickets!”
I shiver, suddenly nervous, and follow Megan as she weaves through the throng of people standing outside to join him.
“Barthe!” she says, and kisses him. “I can’t believe you scored these!”
He grins, her cheap lipstick staining his mouth. “Yeah, well, you can thank Ulysses.”
Ulysses, his older brother, who had embraced his horrible name. The ultra-cool guy who worked as a promoter for some of the smaller clubs in the city, including the one we’re at now. We hadn’t had to pay anything for the tickets -- we’d gotten them for free. The one caveat had been that we had to show up and pretend to be excited about everyone playing, not just Crows.
“Are you ready?” says Megan. It’s not addressed to me, but I nod anyway.
Mom used to give me warnings about going out. I think she knew I was sneaking out, or at least had some idea that we were getting up to something. She didn’t like Megan, I knew, and while she tolerated Barthe, she thought he was an idiot for dating her, for “indulging in the drama”, as I overheard her say to Dad.
“Jaclyn’s a good kid, though,” Dad always defended me. “Whatever she’s getting up to, she’s making honor roll, and she’s going to State in the fall. She’s fine. Let her have a little freedom, Linda.”
“I know she’s a good kid. Even good kids make bad choices.”
When I talked to Mom again, she gave me another warning about going out. Dad warned me, too. His warnings were more oblique, not Mom’s direct “don’t do drugs and for God’s sake don’t wreck your future by getting a DUI.”
“Remember, you can always leave,” he told me. “If you’re somewhere and you’re uncomfortable, you can always come home. You don’t have to stay.”
He gave me a tiny cast-iron star, something polished smooth by years of fingers rubbing over the surface. “Consider it a good-luck charm and a reminder: you can always leave.”
I never wondered why it was cast-iron. I kept it with me -- after all, he said it was lucky, and I trusted him -- and we didn’t talk about my sneaking out or where I might be going.
The guy at the door checks our tickets and IDs, then smirks and stamps our hand with Xes, the classic “no alcohol, don’t even ID” sign. “Under 21 is upstairs and to the right,” he says, and Barthe nods -- he’s been here before.
“This way,” he says, and leads us through. There’s a metal detector, and someone wants to check the inside of my purse. I drop the cast-iron star into my purse along with my keys, and the detector doesn’t go off as any of us walk through it.
“Enjoy,” says the woman working security, and I smile at her nervously.
“Hurry up Jake,” says Megan, and I sigh and follow after her.
Upstairs is loud -- they’re piping 80s rock over the loudspeaker while the roadies for Crows set up.
“If Ulysses asks, you really liked Bedhead, okay?” says Barthe.
“Of course,” says Megan drily. “Ten minutes until Crows!”
She bounces excitedly on the balls of her feet, and I sigh and try to find somewhere, anywhere, to sit. There’s benches around the outside of the floor, but they’re all occupied for now -- men and women who must be our age, but who look...older. More refined, like they’ve been doing this for longer than we have, and they know what the rules are, what they do or don’t have to do.
I stand around, half-listening to Megan and Barthe, waiting for the band to start and wishing I wasn't the third wheel.
The lights go down and the 80s music on the stereo gets turned off. The crowd cheers -- everyone around the edges stands up and moves to the front of the floor, near the stage -- and a man with black hair arranged artfully around his shoulders, ripped black jeans and a t-shirt that says “CROWS” and has a picture of a Victorian lady turning into a crow comes out.
“Are you ready?” he croons into the mic, and everyone screams.
Megan and Barthe press toward the front, but I move to the benches. I’m antsy and anxious, and as the band begins to play, the feeling only intensifies. I don’t want to sit still, but I don’t want to dance…
“Jake!” Megan shouts. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
The feeling intensifies: why aren’t I. I clutch at my purse, and I remember the little cast iron star, my good luck charm. I fish it out and clench it in my fist, and if the feeling doesn’t ease, exactly, it doesn’t intensify. “I’m fine here!”
The band kicks into one of their most famous songs, the one that’s been on the radio for weeks now, the one that made Megan say that we had to go. She screams -- I can pick her voice out of the crowd -- and I can see Barthe throw his hands in the air.
I half-listen, clutching the cast iron star. My phone is still in the bottom of my purse, and I have the weird feeling, I should call Dad right now. I don’t know why. In the two and a half years I’ve been sneaking out with Megan, I’ve never thought that.
I want to ignore it, but the thought jabs at me while I sit on the bench.
Crows launches into their next song, and the feeling only intensifies. Something is wrong. I have to go.
The singer looks out across the floor, and I could swear, even as I’m sitting on the bench, at the edge, toward the back, that he’s singing at me. That he sees me and wonders why I’m not dancing like everyone else, because everyone else is dancing.
It dawns on me how strange this is. I’ve been to other concerts. Not everyone dances. There’s always someone who sways in place, standing but not moving, or the people like me who elect to sit on the benches and not move.
The antsy feeling intensifies, and I feel the singer staring at me. The words, I think, are aimed at me. They’re modified from the normal chorus of the song -- something about trying to get the girl you like to go out with you because life is short -- they’re now about getting someone to dance with you.
“Little girl,” the lead singer croons. “I see you, sitting out, all alone.”
Megan likes the band, because the lead is handsome. “So pretty,” she says.
I like the band because Megan does, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, and because I like their lyrics. I know all the words to their songs. They’re a little Goth but not very, the sort of gently-edging-into-darkness that reminds me of other bands I like. Hardcore without being hardcore, the genre.
The lyrics aren’t right.
It occurs to me, as I sit on the bench, that something is wrong. I don’t recognize any of the songs they’re playing -- I don’t recognize anything at all. I’ve lost track of time.
I pull my phone out, and I see that it says it’s 2AM.
What? But they’ve only played four, maybe five songs, max...
I wade through the crowd, and the pull to dance is strong. I try to grab Megan, and when she won’t come, I try to grab Barthe. Both of them are soaked with sweat, looking exhausted, like they want to stop.
“Jake,” says Megan, her voice manic. “You should join us!”
“Jake,” Barthe echos. “I can’t stop. You should join us.”
I manage to pull the two of them to the side, my good-luck charm clutched in my fist. “Come on, guys, it’s time to go home.”
“We can’t stop,” says Barthe, and his voice sounds -- afraid.
I clutch the cast iron star a little tighter, and I pull Barthe off the floor, into the dark hallway outside.
“Where are you going?” Megan shrieks. She reaches out and touches me, as I pull -- still dancing -- and when her fingers brush over the hand that holds the star, she immediately stops.
“Meg?” I clutch at her hand, too, pulling her after me even as I yank Barthe out.
“Jake,” she says. “Um. Where…?”
Outside, in the dark of the hall, the band can’t be heard at all.
There’s no sound, no noise. The venue is quiet, and the only light comes from the emergency exit signs.
“I want to go home,” I say, my voice stronger, more sure, than I feel. “I’m tired, and I want to go home.”
“Okay, uh -- okay,” says Barthe. “Have you got your keys and stuff?”
I hold up my purse. “Do you need a ride?”
“I was with Ulysses,” says Barthe. “He said he was gonna give me a ride home -- shit.” He peers at the glowing rectangle of his phone screen, flips it open. “He texted me...he left at midnight. Uh, yeah, Jake, if you don’t mind…”
I ignore that they’re both calling me by the wrong name. “Let’s go.”
We walk down the stairs, Megan and Barthe on wobbly legs. When we make it outside, I sigh in relief. The antsy feeling is disappearing, the feeling that something is wrong dissipating.
The crowd that was smoking outside is gone. Standing next to the exit door is a lone man -- the lead singer for Crows. I recognize the hair, the shirt -- the too-bright eyes.
He nods at us, as we walk out.
“The sitter,” he says. “Did you enjoy the concert?”
I try to keep walking, but Megan stops me. “Jake, he asked you a question.”
Her eyes are wide, and she’s starstruck -- I can tell.
I clutch my hand around the star, the points digging into my skin. “In a sense.”
He smiles lazily. His eyes look almost predatory, the blue too bright to be real. “Cold iron,” he says, after a moment. “Next time, then.”
It happens in an instant -- I shove Megan and Barthe ahead of me, and they stumble down the sidewalk to my car. I’m afraid of them getting caught again, and while I don’t know why, I know that the singer is behind it.
“Well met,” he says softly. “Well handled.”
He stubs out his cigarette, and I feel the slightest brush of lips over my cheek. I shut my eyes and turn my head. “Until next time.”
“Jake,” says Megan, her voice shaking. “What was that?”
I open my eyes again, and the singer is gone. The place where he kissed me feels strangely warm.
Cold iron, he said, and I’ve never been so grateful for Dad’s words of wisdom: you can always leave.
“Come on,” I manage. “The car’s over here. Let’s go home.”
I look it up later, the phrase cold iron.
I tried to forget what I found.
Megan and Barthe broke up for good at the end of the summer. We stopped sneaking out before they did. I think we all knew it was over.
When my roommate freshman year asked if I knew a band called Crows, and would I like to go see them, I lied.
“I’m not a fan,” I said.”
I strung the little cast-iron star onto its own chain and took to wearing it regularly.
I’ve seen him around a few times. I know I’ll find him again, even if I don’t know when.
I'll be ready, next time.
This might be the page that Jaclyn found, when she looked it up.
Iron has been known to protect anyone from being pulled into supernatural events.
Thank you for reading.