Jade Ingrid's fingers hovered over the keyboard of her laptop. She'd been sitting like this for some time, the word processor screen open in front of her, the blinking cursor on the white blank page taunting her.
Just write the first sentence, she thought. It all flows from there. You've written enough assignments to know that just getting started is the hardest part.
Taking a deep breath as rolling her head around on her shoulders, she hunched over the laptop and got herself ready to write. But despite her little warm-up, her mind was just as blank as it was before.
What was it that Hemingway said? she thought. "Just start with the truest sentence you know?" What the hell does that even mean, anyway? How on earth can an eighteen-year-old college freshman know what is and isn't "true?"
Jade breathed in through her nostrils in frustration, clenching and unclenching her hands. Glancing off to the side, she looked once again at the sheet her professor had given her with the requirements for the assignment. Jade had already read the paper numerous times, but figured that looking it over one last time might get the gears turning in her head.
Intro to Creative Non-Fiction, read the paper in bold letters. Write no less than two-thousand words about an interesting or unique place you've been to.
Jade's eyes blurred as they ran down the rest of the paper, which was filled with the specific requirements of the assignment.
"Interesting or unique?" she thought. Where have I been that's "interesting or unique?"
Jade turned her attention back to the blank page, hoping that the muse would zip in through the window, perch upon her shoulder, and dictate to Jade the beautiful prose of which she knew she was capable. But just as before, nothing came.
OK, thought Jade. I'll just make some coffee and stretch my legs. That'll get the creative juices flowing.
Getting up from her cheap dorm room chair, Jade strode over to the little kitchen nook in the corner of the room and put on a pot of fresh coffee, dumping down the sink the dregs of the pot she'd already downed this morning. As she waited for the coffee to prepare, she peeked through the shut blinds out of the window at the green stretch of campus just outside of her dorm. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Iowa City- very unseasonable for the early part of fall. Part of her wanted to simply proclaim that no writing was going to be possible today. Then she could shut her laptop, get out of her cramped dorm room, and enjoy the sun while it lasted.
No, she thought, I can't just give up like that. If I'm going to be a professional writer I can't just sit around and wait to be motivated; I have to write like it's a job. Because one day, hopefully, it will be.
The coffee maker gurgled and hissed, dark black liquid pouring into the pot. Once the coffee was finished, jade poured herself a big cup and took a seat on the window sill. She watched the students, all seemingly carefree and ready to enjoy their Saturday, stroll around here and there, big smiles on their faces.
Geez, she thought, don't any of you have assignments to work on? Books to study? Or am I just the only person here lame enough to be spending my Saturday morning doing homework?
Jade sighed again as she looked down into the ink-black coffee in her hands. Maybe this was a stupid mistake to think I should major in creative writing? Maybe my parents were right when they told me that liberal arts were for girls who wanted to spend their twenties working at Starbucks? I mean, I'm only a freshman- it's not too late to give the whole stupid dream of being a writer and major in pre-med or something.
And throughout Jade's whole thought process, the blank page on the other side of the room continued to stare at her, that blinking cursor still taunting her.
Jade sipped at her coffee, her eyes locked onto the screen. But before she could indulge in any further self-defeating thoughts, the front door flung open and in strolled Katie Willard, Jade's roommate, and total opposite in every way.
"Hey, girl!" she said, a bright smile on her flawless, sunny face, her blue eyes somehow just as striking as ever in the dark of the room, her golden hair framing her pert features with perfect symmetry. "Ugh! Why do you always have to have it so dark in here? It's like you're living in a cave or something."
Katie bounded over to the shut blinds and pulled them open one after another, sunlight pouring into the dorm room with each opened window. Jade raised her arm to cover her eyes against the light.
"Oh my God," said Katie, "look at you; you're like a vampire or something."
"It's just…really bright," said Jade, blinking her eyes over and over to try and accustom herself to the glare of the sunlight.
"I mean, I know you're an artist or whatever, but that doesn't mean you have to live like a troll or something."
With that, Katie plopped onto the bed and folded her slim hands on her lap.
"So, you missed a totally fucking amazing party last night," she said, looking away as if already reliving the memories.
"Oh?" asked Jade.
"Um, yeah," Katie said. "Like, everyone who you'd want to bang was there. And the beer was free, of course- the upperclassmen wanted to make us freshmen girls feel welcome."
"That was really nice of them," said Jade. "I'm sure they didn't have any ulterior motives in getting you guys stuffed with free beer."
"Oh, please," said Katie. "I'm not gonna turn down a free drink. Besides, if some guy wants to do something nice for me, he can go right ahead and do it. Not like he's gonna get anything out of it unless I say so. But anyway, you should've been there. I mean, we're halfway through the semester and I haven't seen you bring a single guy back here. What the fuck's up with that?"
"I'm just trying to focus on my grades," said Jade. "I've got so many goddamn books to read, and these stories aren't going to write themselves."
"Oh, that's right," said Katie. "I forget that not everyone's a comms major sometimes. But still, you need to find time to have some fun, girl. You only get to be a freshman once, you know."
"I know, I know," said Jade, setting her coffee down.
"And you left your grades up on the computer the other day, so, I know that you're one of those dorks who constantly thinks they're failing when they're actually pulling down straight A's."
"But you have to keep working, otherwise the A's turn into B's…then C's. Then maybe worse."
"You're worrying too much," said Katie, waving her hand dismissively. "And plus, don't you actually have to like, do stuff so you can write about it? I mean what's your great American novel going to be about anyway, the epic story of a girl sitting in her dorm room with the blinds closed?"
Katie's words cut right to the quick.
"That's actually the exact problem I'm having right now," said Jade, looking away.
"Oh, really?" asked Katie, intrigued. "Do tell."
"So, this class that I have an assignment, for now, is creative non-fiction."
"'Creative non-fiction'?" asked Katie. "I have no idea what that is."
"It's, um, well, you're writing about stuff that happened, but in a fiction kind of way."
"You've lost me," said Katie.
"Like, if I were to write a story about the party last night."
"You mean the party that you didn't go to?"
"Um, yeah," said Jade. "That one. So, if I were to write a story about last night, and write it in a story-y way, then that's creative non-fiction."
"Hmm," said Katie, seeming to understand. "Sounds stupid. If I'm gonna read a story, it should be something someone came up with."
"Well, yeah," said Jade, "but if someone were writing about a life where they did more interesting things than going to parties-"
"-or stayed in on Friday nights to work on homework."
"Or that, then you might find the material a little more engaging."
"OK, I get it," said Katie. "So, what do you have to write about?"
"A place that I've been to that's unique or interesting."
"And you can't think of a single place?"
"I don't know," said Jade. "I mean, my family lives in suburban Omaha. And I don't want to be the millionth person to write about her trip to the Grand Canyon or something."
"Hmm," thought Katie. "Then maybe you should go someplace interesting?"
"What do you mean?" asked Jade.
"I don't know, maybe go to one of the bad parts of town, like down in the southwest part of the city."
"Are you kidding?" asked Jade. "All by myself?"
"Sure!" said Katie, as chipper and sunny as if she were proposing an afternoon trip to Wal-Mart. "Go down there tonight and check out the area. I bet you'll see some stuff worth writing about."
"Yeah, or get assaulted by some guy on meth."
"You can take my mace and Taser," said Katie. "Any asshole gives you trouble, just give him the old cap-and-spray."
"'The old zap-and-spray?" asked Jade. "Have you ever actually done this before?"
"I mean, no," said Katie, looking away. "But I totally would if I had to."
She bounded up from the bed and went through her purse. Jade already could feel the first creeping, chilly touch of anxiety crawl into her belly. Katie then shoved the Taser and mace into Jade's hands.
"I don't even know if I'm gonna do this," said Jade as she looked the items over.
"You should," said Katie. "Don't be a baby. Go there and see some interesting stuff. Besides, what're you gonna do otherwise? Stare at your blank Word document for the next our then binge-watch something, maybe leave the house for some take-out?"
"Sounds like a pretty good evening to me," said Jade. "Aside from the not getting any work done part."
"It sounds like a boring night, and not one that someone who wants to write about interesting stuff should be having," said Katie. "Just go to the weird part of town, see what you can, and come back. Get out of your comfort zone."
"But what if I don't see anything worth writing about?"
"Then make something up!"
"Kind of goes against the spirit of ‘creative non-fiction'," said Jade.
"Such a goody-goody," said Katie as she checked her hair in the mirror. "Anyway, I'm going out for lunch with this fucking hot-as-hell guy I met last night. His name's Curt and he rows crew. Nice, huh?"
Jade mustered up the enthusiasm, despite Katie just describing the exact kind of guy that she wouldn't be interested in.
"Sounds great," she said.
"Anyway, I might be back later. Or not," she said, with a wink and a devious smile. "See ya! And don't lose my Taser- that thing cost, like, two-hundred dollars. Bye!"
With that, Katie was gone. As soon as Katie left, Jade's attention turned back to the blank page on her computer.
Is Katie right? thought Jade. I mean, she's right that I'm not exactly living the most literary life imaginable right now; I don't think anyone would be chomping at the bit to read a book about my life story. But going to the bad part of town and just wandering around?
She sipped her coffee and considered the situation. About halfway through her cup, she decided to plop down in front of the computer and give her writing another shot. But after another hour slipped by with nothing to show for it, Jade felt herself a little more open to Katie's suggestion.
OK, she thought, I'll just drive down there and look around. If it gets too weird and scary then I can just drive back. Easy peasy.
Once the early evening arrived, Jade gathered her things along with the mace and Taser and prepared to head out. Taking a look in the mirror, she went over her reflection, noting her small, elfin features, her big green eyes, her close-cropped, chocolate brown hair, and her slim frame.
Probably not a good idea to show off the goods, she thought, not that I have much to show off.
Putting on a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, Jade couldn't help but glance down at her slender body and wish that she had the "assets" that Katie seemed to have lucked into.
Well, she thought, between the short hair and the clothes maybe I'll just look like a teenage boy looking to score some weed or something.
Once everything was in order, Jade grabbed her keys and headed out. She walked through campus, the air a little brisk compared to earlier in the day. Once she reached her car, a recent model sedan that her parents bought for her as a graduation present, she climbed in and started her drive.
After she made her way away from the few blocks around the campus where she spent most of her time, she arrived in the bad part of town. In a place like Iowa City, the bad part of town wasn't exactly an urban wasteland, but it wasn't any place that a girl like her would want to live. The streets were cracked and unmaintained, abandoned buildings lined the streets, and men in dirty clothes ambled around aimlessly.
This is a bad idea, she thought. But I've come this far. I'll just park, walk around the block, and come back; not like I have to hang out in a crack den or something.
Jade pulled her car into a spot right in the middle of a large pool of light from a street lamp above, killed the engine, and took a deep breath. Moments later, she was out of her car and on the street, the sky above brilliant with oranges and deep blues from the setting sun.
At first, she could barely breathe. Her heart raced, and she found her glance daring around continuously. Her hands were tucked into the pouch of her hooded sweatshirt, her right hand gripping the Taser and the left on the mace. But so far, no one seemed to be out for any malicious intent; just about every person she saw appeared to be a random vagrant wandering around nowhere in particular, some mumbling to themselves.
When she reached the first block Jade let out a sigh of relief.
OK, that wasn't so bad, she thought. It's just…different here. Not all that scary. OK, maybe a little scary.
She turned towards the intersecting street, taking one last look at her car behind her before heading down the block. There, she saw more homeless men, along with a few women here and there, all of them living in the sort of squalor that she'd never before seen up close and personal like this. The men and women in their grubby clothes were gathered for warmth under all sorts of make-shift shelters. Jade couldn't help but be touched by the desperate situations that these people lived in. For a girl like her who'd never once had to worry about where her next meal was going to come from, it struck her in the core of her being.
But she kept her steps brisk and quick; Jade realized that most of the people here were just people with rough lives trying to make it through the night, but she knew that her luck could change at any moment. Once she reached the next block she turned to her right and decided to make a long circle that would eventually lead her back to her car. During her walk, she passed more homeless, some children among them.
After another block or two, the still silence of the air was interrupted by the chatter of several men. Jade looked ahead and saw that a group of men was gathered in the middle of the street ahead. A quick look revealed that they were all mostly young men, all filled with the sort of tense energy that she noticed in younger guys who looked like they were up to no good.
This looks like some shit that I absolutely do not want to get involved in, she thought to herself.
Looking around, she spotted a dumpster nearby. Hiding behind it, she watched the men argue with one another.
"I'm telling you, man," said one, a tall, skinny guy in red and white sports clothes. "This is some bullshit."
"How is it some bullshit?" one of the other men said. "This is the fuckin' deal that we agreed to. And now you're the one backing off at the last goddamn second."
"Well, when you said six I figured that'd mean there'd be some, you know, wiggle room."
The second man turned around in frustration, looking back at the group of men behind him. Jade watched with fascination the gangs argue. She knew that she should've turned and run as far away from the scene as possible, but she couldn't help but watch. Jade was drawn in with morbid fascination.
"'Wiggle room'," said the second man, his voice heavy with disbelief. "This motherfucker's talking about goddamn ‘wiggle room'. No, you stupid shit- when we agreed to a price, stupid fucking me figured that was the money you'd be coming here with."
"Ain't you ever haggled before?" said the first man. "That's how this shit works. You give me a number, and I give you a new one. Then we come to, you know, a mutually agreeable price."
Jade looked around at the rest of the street. She couldn't believe that an argument like this was happening right out in the open like this. But aside from the gang members and the smattering of homeless, she didn't see anyone else, let alone police officers. The apartment buildings on both sides of her seemed to be abandoned; if anyone lived there, she certainly couldn't see any sign of them.
"OK, I'm willing to look past this fucking bullshit if you just pay me what we agreed for the shit," said the second man. "I don't feel like fucking around in the middle of the street on a Saturday night so we can haggle prices, my man."
"Uh…" said the first man.
"What the fuck you mean, ‘uh'? You got the money or what?"
"I got four," he said.
"Four?" shouted the second man. "You dragged me all the fucking way out here to waste my time with some ‘four' bullshit? My man, what the fuck did you think was gonna happen when you showed up here thinking I was gonna give you a fucking half-off discount? Are you out of your damn mind?"
Jade's head began to race. She glanced around again and saw that none of the homeless were reacting in any way to what was going on. Jade realized that this potential fight right in the middle of the street was probably nothing out of the ordinary for any of them.
"I figured that six was a starting point, and that we'd work from there. Have you ever made a deal before, dude?"
Jade was pretty far away from the scene, but she could see that the second man was getting more pissed off by the minute.
"Look at this motherfucker asking me if I've ever made a goddamn deal before. Bitch, do you know who the fuck you're talking to? I'm the man who owns this block, and that block, and the block after that, and the block after that. Your ass is lucky that I'm even here in person to take your fuckin' money."
"Come on, man," said the other man. "I got deals lined up for that shit. How was I supposed to know that you weren't gonna budge on the price?"
The other man scoffed. "You know you're fucked when you're saying ‘come on, man' during the middle of a deal. So, I'm changing the terms- you give me six now, or I put a fucking bullet right in your goddamn brain. How's that sound for a deal?"
"But," said the other man, "I don't have six. I only got four!"
The second man pulled out a small object and pointed it at the other man.
Holy shit, thought Jade, is that a gun? That's a goddamn gun!
Her heart pounded harder than it ever had before.
What if they see me? she thought. They'll kill me for sure!
"Then you'd better start askin' your fuckin' buddies for a spot. ‘Cause I'm starting to get real impatient."
The man walked forward until the gun was only inches away from the other man's head.
"Whoa, whoa," came a voice that Jade hadn't yet heard. "Let's take it down a fucking notch."
Jade scanned the crowd of men for just who among them has spoken.
"No need to be pulling out fuckin' guns over two k," the voice spoke.
It was a calm, low voice, one that struck Jade as almost hypnotic. Moving her glance from man to man, she finally settled her gaze on who was speaking. The man was tall and well-built, with a head of dark blonde hair and eyes so blue that Jade could clearly make out the color from where she was hidden. He was dressed in a pair of dark jeans, black sneakers and a fitted gray t-shirt that clung to his body tight enough to hint at the muscular body underneath. Though Jade couldn't make out the precise features of his face, she could see enough to tell that he was a looker, to put it mildly.
Goddamn, she thought. He's fucking gorgeous.
Jade knew that she should've been more prudent about not being spotted, but she couldn't help but poke her head out from behind her hiding spot in hopes of getting a better glimpse at this new man.
"Fuckin hell, Leon," said the second man, the gun still trained on the first. "You're not the goddamn boss here; I got this shit handled."
"I agree with him," said the first man, his voice quavering.
"Ain't no one ask you a goddamn thing, motherfucker," said the second man taking another step closer to the other and pressing the gun against his head.
"Rusty's a good guy, Anton," said Leon. "I can vouch for him. And you wouldn't be here if he didn't have a reputation."
"No shit," said Anton. "I'm only here cause this fool's got a rep."
"Then I'm sure he just wasn't familiar with how you do business," said Leon. "Perfectly understandable that he'd think you'd be haggling if that's what he's used to."
"T-that's right," said Rusty, his eyes locked on the gun. "Just what I'm used to."
"And, if I know my bargaining idiots, I bet he's got the two k on him."
"Man, Leon," said Rusty. "You're givin' away the game just like that, huh?"
Leon shook his head. "If you think that having a gun pressed to your fuckin' head means you're in any kind of a position to bargain, then maybe you're too goddamn stupid to live."
"My man Leon speakin' the truth?" said Anton. "You got the cash on you now?"
Rusty sighed. "Yeah, I got it. Six K."
He turned to a man behind him.
"Pay the man."
One of Rusty's men pulled out another small brown bag and withdrew a tight roll of bills. He handed it towards Anton, who quickly snatched the money from his hand.
"See? Was that so fuckin' hard? Goddamn, you fools think this is some Turkish bazaar or some shit; just pay the dealer what he says, that's how this shit works."
Jade breathed a sigh of relief once it appeared that a gunfight wasn't going to happen right in the middle of the street, only a few dozen feet from where she hid. Taking another peek, she watched as the first man took a bag from one of the second man's associates and peered inside.
"What the fuck man, you think I'd stiff you on that shit?" said Anton. "It's all there."
"Just force of habit, friend," said Rusty. "When you deal with the street trash for as long as I have, you get a little suspicious about these things, you know?"
"That ‘trash' you're talking about are my people," said Anton. "Might want to watch what you say if you wanna keep doing business here, ‘friend'."
Leon approached Anton and placed his hand on his shoulder with a firm clap, as if to signal to him that the time for tensions to be raised was over.
"Let's get the fuck out of here, Anton," said Leon. "We got more deals to do tonight; can't afford to be fucking around with every last one of them."
"Yeah, yeah," said Anton.
Wow, thought Jade, watching Leon take control of the situation yet again. Who's really in charge here?
She then turned around, checking to see if the coast was clear for her to make a break for it. But as she turned around, her elbow bumped against a stack of boxes full of garbage. The stack wobbled for a moment before toppling over in a loud crash. Jade stared at the boxes with wide eyes for a long moment, her heart pounding once again.
Then, moments later, she heard the last words that she wanted to hear from the gang members.
"Hey, what the fuck was that?”