“I thought Mike was meeting us?” I asked Nikki as she started to head inside the theatre. She stopped and looked back at me blankly for a moment.
“Mike?” she said.
“You’re… boyfriend? What other Mike would you think I meant?” As if snapping back from a daydream she bobbed her head, blinked, and then grinned.
“Oh yeah! Mike, of course. No he’s not coming. We broke up.” She turned to continue into the theatre, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“Woah! Wait a second,” I exclaimed, “You can’t just drop a bomb like that and take off. What happened? Just a few days ago you said the two of you were looking for apartments. I’ve never seen you so happy.”
Something I didn’t recognize flashed in her eyes and she jerked her arm rather roughly from my grasp, tugging and twisting her sweater off her shoulder in the process. Something felt wrong; I couldn’t place it. Something was not right. The feeling only intensified as she plastered a discomfiting smile on her face.
“Well I started to feel like things were moving too quickly,” she said, but as she went on with her explanation I couldn’t hear her. There was something very off, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I searched over every inch of her as she continued to talk. My eyes travelled over her clothes, her hair, her face, even scrutinizing the way she was standing. This was Nikki, in every way, but I couldn’t shake the odd feeling I was missing something.
“Anyway, it’s no big deal Dee, let’s just go enjoy the movie, k?” she finished and I snapped back to reality. Maybe I was just tired and being paranoid? Sure Mike and Nikki had seemed blissful only a few days ago, but I’d never been in a relationship as long as they had; perhaps this kind of volatility was normal when you’d been together as long as they had. Finally I nodded and she grinned even wider, if that were possible, and turned once again to walk inside. She began speaking again, but, as before, I could not hear her. With her back to me now that unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach grew stronger. I reassessed her form from behind and that’s when I realized it.
“Nik, what happened to your tattoo?” I asked. She stopped and turned with a disturbing slowness back towards me. That look was in her eyes again, but this time it did not flash and disappear. It made a shiver scuttle up my spine. Her features were still mimicking an expression of friendliness and calm, but her eyes threw off the whole picture.
“I don’t know what you mean Dee?” she said softly. Who was this person? This couldn’t be my Nikki, my best friend? The girl who had practiced cutting my hair just before picture day when we were six; the girl who introduced me to my first crush, Mr. Rochester, in junior high; the girl who shared every hope, every secret, every joy, and every loss with me. The girl who dragged me to a crummy, creepy little tattoo parlour when she was 16 and had just won emancipation from her abusive, neglectful mother and chose to celebrate this by having a delicate sparrow fleeing its cage inked forever onto her shoulder blade.
When I did not reply she turned and exposed the other shoulder, her left.
“It’s right here silly,” she said in a sickly sweet voice, the menace in her eyes unabating. I felt my stomach drop, as though it were pulled down by the weight of a huge invisible stone. This was wrong, so wrong that it felt unreal.
When Nikki was fourteen her mother had come home one night smelling so strongly of alcohol that the living room air was thick with the sick stench of it for several hours. Almost immediately she started in on Nikki, beating her furiously until finally my friend was sprawled on the floor, nearly unconscious. Her mother then lit a cigarette and, after a few puffs, extinguished it in Nikki’s shoulder with such a flippancy that Nikki would often say she felt as though her mother barely valued her as much more than a dime store ashtray. When she finally got away from that disgusting woman two years later Nikki had the tattoo that symbolized her freedom placed over the scar that cigarette had left behind. It had remained in the cage, while she, the sparrow, flew on to a better life. It had been Nikki’s right shoulder.
I didn’t understand. Confusion and fear washed over me and before I realized it I said,
“It’s supposed to be on your right shoulder Nik, that doesn’t make any sense,” then I met her eyes once more and saw nothing familiar.
“Who are you?” It slipped out. I couldn’t stop it. Everything was so confusing and so wrong, then her smile faded and an ugly grimace twisted her features.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” she said, the look in her eyes wild, more frightening than ever. Just as I had the instinctual thought to run I blinked and missed the hand that shot out. I felt it though, for an instant before the blackness overtook me. I felt it connect with my temple and heard a sharp, pop!