Fiction from Kaylie Saidin
Cate Lucas stopped coming to class in junior year of high school and everyone wondered what happened to her. We went to a small school, and of course, people talked.
She sat next to me in math during the second semester of my sophomore year. I let her borrow my pencils and we made jokes about geometry. She had a raspy voice and big doe eyes and smelled like cigarettes and wasn’t very good at doing trig functions and was sometimes more than ten minutes late, but our teacher always looked the other way. A rumor went around that she had already lost her virginity. We wrote each other notes in pencil on the glossed-over finish of the wooden desks. I thought she was beautiful.
When Cate was gone for more than a week, people in class talked about how she had moved to Australia to become a singer for a record label. Cate was quite good at singing, objectively good enough to be a professional, but I had never weighed in on the topic. I didn’t talk much in class—I never had. I didn’t like to look people in the eye. I just liked to write on my desk, and I liked for her to read it.
In freshman year, Cate and I took physical education together. We had to swim laps for a month and nobody was any good at it except for me. I was showcased in front of the class: look at this freestyle, see how her hands cup the water and push it back? That’s what you all need to do. Each time this happened, I felt the weight of twenty eyes staring at me through the surface of the water. I dove deep, as if I could hide from them. When I surfaced, Cate’s large, tired eyes met mine. They always looked like they were apologizing.
I knew that Cate was good at singing because I once heard her in the shower after swimming. Usually, the rest of the girls and I would quickly rinse off in the hot water before changing into our clothes and rushing to our next period. We would slam our lockers and scramble the codes and frantically comb our wet hair and reapply mascara and run down the halls like it mattered, like being late to fourth period in freshman year of high school mattered, like having long eyelashes mattered, like our Target brand wet swimsuits getting stolen mattered. But Cate would take her time, as if she had no class afterwards. As if there was nowhere she would rather be but the locker room.
One day, I decided not to go to my next class. It was the first and last time I’d ever skipped, and I felt like it was ethical. I was tired of history class. All we did was talk about dead people.
It was just Cate and I for those forty-five minutes in the locker room after we swam the sidestroke. We combed our hair and talked about mindless things—the boys in our class, the songs on the radio. In a casual discussion, she told me that her father hit her when she was a kid and that he wasn’t allowed around her or her mother. I knew plenty of other teenage girls who discussed their trauma with this cavalier tone, and so I wasn’t too phased.
Then Cate confessed to me that she had a boyfriend who was older, even older than twenty. I remember the strange feeling in my lower abdomen I got when she told me this. I remember lying in bed that night and thinking about her boyfriend who was older than twenty, wondering what they talked about together, what they did together. It felt like a hundred worms wiggling in my stomach.
Cate took off all her clothes when she showered. None of the other girls in gym class did this, but I guess it was just us, after all. I had never seen another girl naked, and I tried not to stare. Her skin was not smooth like mine. She had freckles and bruised knees and bumps from shaving and scabbed forearms. She looked older, was older, maybe. Once she started singing Amy Winehouse, I realized that I was a child in comparison to her. She had experienced things I hadn’t yet, and some things I never would. She didn’t need to tell me this; nobody ever did. It was just something I always knew.
When Cate was gone from school for more than two weeks, we were reading Genesis in religion class. As dawn was breaking on Sodom, angels urged Lot and his family to flee and not look back. But Lot’s wife did look back, and she became a pillar of salt, alone in the desert. The rest of the family ran on, and there she stood for eternity.
“What was her name?” I asked.
The reverend stopped talking. I had interrupted him. He looked irritated, and I regretted speaking up. I was never sure when the right time to speak was. I’m still not sure.
“What was that?”
“I—“ it was too late now. People looked at me, but I had to know. “I was wondering if she had a name.”
The reverend looked at me for a second that felt like a lifetime. Then he said, “No. She didn’t.” And then we moved on to the city burning. Sodom up in flames.
Later that day, I was pulled out of my next class. I panicked at first and thought I would be in trouble for asking about Lot’s wife, but when I stepped into the hallway, there were two police officers. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I had also heard the stories about the San Francisco Police Department slamming the heads of prostitutes onto the pavement until they died from brain bleeding and then covering it up, so I approached them tentatively.
“Was Cate Lucas one of your friends?” asked an officer, and when he did, my eyes welled up with tears no matter how much I willed them to stop. The other one handed me a tissue, but the snot was already running.
I don’t know why I cried, and I couldn’t have told anyone what happened if they asked, but something in me knew. I knew what happened to girls like Cate Lucas. I had always known and always will know, and perhaps women are born knowing.
I told the cops she and I sat together in geometry and swam together in gym. That I heard she was in Australia. They shook their heads when I said that.
“We believe Cate has been a victim of sex trafficking,” said the one who had given me the tissue. “She’s been missing for two weeks. Did she ever talk to you about an older guy in her life? Illegal substances?”
I told them about her boyfriend who was more than twenty. “But that was two years ago,” I assured them.
They nodded and didn’t need anything else from me. When I was going back to class, one put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted to say, please don’t touch me, but I didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t pat my back or anything. He just put his hand on my shoulder, cupped it briefly, and then squeezed.
“Keep an eye out,” he said.
I did. I spent the rest of high school looking for her, and even some afterwards, even now. I thought I’d hear her singing in the showers of the locker room, but it was just the faucet echoing off the walls. I thought I’d smell her when I walked home, but it was just the neighbors smoking cigarettes.
When I told my father, he shook his head and said, “That’s a shame she went down a bad path. She seemed like such a nice girl.” Then he said, “Can you water the tomatoes tonight, before you forget?” My mother wasn’t there for me to tell her.
People stopped saying the name Cate Lucas. At school, there was never a memorial or a candlelight vigil, because she wasn’t dead—even though people acted like she was. Life started to move on without her. I started asking questions in class. I started thinking about what it meant to be a pillar of salt.
There was once, when I myself was older than twenty, that I thought I saw her in a vintage clothing store on Haight Street. I recognized her big doe eyes, still apologizing. She was buying a velvet dress and a pair of overalls, and, as she took out a little coin purse, I was staring. Her eyes met mine and I swear she smiled a little. But she was gone before I could talk to her. Maybe it wasn’t Cate Lucas, maybe it was just a trick of the light.
When she left the store, when she was gone for more than ten years, more than a lifetime, I started looking at everyone else as I passed them on the street. Wondering who was missing from somewhere, who had been taken. And who had been the taker. I started looking women in the eyes when I walked by them. Some of them looked back.
Kaylie Saidin grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in New Orleans. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has won the 2018 Dawson Gaillard Award for Fiction and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. You can read more of her in Jellyfish Review, Every Pigeon, Porridge Magazine, and others at kayliesaidin.weebly.com.