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Chapter OneAs she glanced around the room, Tarah Kiersey couldn't tell whether her body was shaking from fear or anticipation. While one side of her brain commanded her to run away-and fast-the other craved her few minutes on stage. Having all those eyes upon her was both frightening and gratifying at the same time. It was something that many people wouldn't understand. And maybe, she decided, they're the lucky ones. Maybe it was easier to go through life always playing it safe, never taking a risk. But was it worth it?
A legendary rock diva once compared the minutes prior to walking on stage to those just before snorting your first line of coke. She believed that although a part of you sensed the danger and feared the consequences, another part knew that the high would be so powerful and intoxicating that it would be worth it. Tarah was sixteen when she first heard this comment and had no experience with either doing cocaine or singing in front of an audience. Yet, even then she knew that those words were accurate. Both experiences scared her. Both peaked her curiosity.
Feeling nervous, she once again looked around the crowded bar in the hope of finding her boyfriend, but to no avail. She had met Jeff a couple of months earlier, back when the hot summer sun drove people into the downtown bars for a cold beer. His band had been playing at one of the city's most popular establishments when Tarah and her best friend stopped in for a drink. Jeff had started a conversation with her in between sets, and she immediately became infatuated with him. Later that night, they went to an all-night restaurant and talked until the sun rose over the dreary, southern Ontario city of Thorton. They had been together ever since.
But that was before the cool, September breezes brought students back to the college town, a city of four hundred and fifty thousand. Now it was not unusual to walk into the same bars that were low-key during the summer months and find them rocking up a storm. The music seemed louder and the people were always different, no matter where you went.
"Tarah Kiersey." The sound of her own name startled her. Feeling her stomach churning, she hid her discomfort with a smile and started walking toward the stage. It was her turn to sing.
As she made her way through a roaring crowd, the host spotted his next performer and automatically began to send compliments in her direction. "Now, don't be fooled; this lady may be small but she can sing." Noting the smile on Tarah's face as she climbed on stage, the announcer seemed encouraged to continue. "And we're in for a treat tonight, here at Jerry's Saturday night jam, because she has selected one of this year's biggest songs, 'Under the Bridge.' Great choice, Tarah!" He winked at the petit blonde and passed her the microphone before leaving her alone in front of a crowd of about two hundred people. To a seasoned performer, this would have been a piece of cake. But to someone like Tarah, who had very little experience singing in public, it may as well have been two thousand people.
Since the band had already started to play, Tarah had no time to second-guess herself. Although it seemed a little awkward in the beginning, the singing lessons she had taken earlier that year had prepared her to be professional. She knew that posture and proper breathing went a long way, not to mention being able to fake confidence. Looking past the faces in the crowd, the twenty-one-year-old wasn't even aware that she held a captive audience. No one who watched her would have guessed that her stomach was in knots and that she had broken into a sweat under the strong lights that beat down on her face. She sang like a pro.
Just as Tarah began to relax and found the courage to look into the faces in the crowd, something caught her eye. It was Jeff, her boyfriend. And he was with another girl-a tall brunette with big boobs.
It figures, Tarah thought. In fact, the woman was all over him, and judging by the smile on his face, he didn't mind. This, after promising Tarah that he had never cheated on her and that she was the only girl for him. After insisting that he'd be there for her that night, standing in the front row, since he was her biggest fan. It was a lie. He didn't even seem aware that she was on stage. She wanted to cry but instead continued to sing and pushed her feelings aside.
As she was about to finish, Tarah saw something that almost made her screw up the entire song. The brunette put her hand in Jeff's, gave him a sly smile, and led him toward the back of the bar. However, the crowd was thick and Tarah quickly lost sight of them. Trying to remain casual, her eyes scanned the many faces in the room. Her sadness quickly turned to anger, and it caused her voice to become stronger. This didn't go unnoticed by the crowd, who were becoming increasingly interested, impressed by the higher and longer notes that this very tiny woman was hitting. Many of those who watched her were musicians themselves and knew talent when they saw it. But Tarah was so caught up in her own drama that she didn't see their obvious acceptance. What she did see was her boyfriend walking into the men's washroom, hand in hand with the brunette. And as Tarah finished the song, she felt rage filling her body. Every lie he had ever told and every excuse he had ever made was now rising to the surface. Suddenly, the reality was painfully clear. As she stood on that stage, Tarah felt herself shake with anger.
Ignoring the cheering crowd and losing sight of the fact that she had just accomplished something big, Tarah felt engulfed in fury. Suddenly all the rumors she had denied in their two months of dating swirled around in her head. Feeling humiliated and repulsed, she abruptly slammed the microphone on the ground, causing a huge thump throughout the room, and then jumped off the stage. Her size was not a deterrent as she flew through the startled crowd of flannel shirts and ripped jeans, heading straight to the men's washroom where the stranger had taken her boyfriend. Only hesitating for a moment, she shoved open the door. Three guys at the urinals were oblivious to the fact that a woman was even in the room. Finding one lone stall door closed, Tarah used all her strength to kick the flimsy door open and felt a thud. The door swung back and revealed Jeff with his pants around his ankles and the brunette on her knees before him. Tarah felt her eyes sting with tears.
While the brunette attempted to chastise Tarah for not only interrupting them, but also hitting her with the door, Jeff quickly pulled up his pants. He had a deer-caught-in-headlights look on his face, and Tarah automatically knew that this wasn't his first indiscretion. Without even thinking, she lunged forward, her fist hitting the same face she had once adored.
Jeff automatically touched the cheek she punched, clearly stunned by Tarah's reaction.
"Baby, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking ..." He said the words as if they were rehearsed, like a child who misbehaves but always has his "forgiveness" speech tucked in the back of his mind. With downcast eyes and a soft voice, he continued to touch his face, "I deserved that."
Tarah could sense that a crowd was gathered behind her but didn't care. "You fucking asshole!" Her voice rang out through the room. "I'll show you what you deserve!" She lunged forward but felt her body being pulled back and eventually up off the ground. It took her a few seconds to realize that the bar's bouncers were dragging her out of the room and toward the exit.
"What are you doing?" Tarah began to cry and felt her feet once again touching the ground. She glanced toward the stage to see another performer was now singing for the crowd, although she still held her own captive audience. "I didn't do anything wrong."
"Miss, you started a fight," One bouncer was now leading her outside into the cool September evening. His strong hand was warm on her back as he talked to her calmly. "Now, I will admit, I saw enough to see where you're coming from," he said, walking with her to the side of the building and lighting up a cigarette at the same time. There were a few other people outside, but they were standing away from everyone else. "Trust me, I caught another guy screwing my ex once; let's just say that pretty boy wasn't looking too pretty when I was done with him."
Tarah felt herself laugh as she wiped the tears from her face. Her hand was starting to hurt.
"I understand why you reacted that way. But, in a place like this, they only look at who started the fight. Unfortunately, they don't look at who deserved to get decked," he inhaled his cigarette deeply and shrugged. "That's the way it goes. But I will say you are quite the boxer for a lady your size."
"Thanks," Tarah replied, and studied her hand.
"You're gonna want to put that on ice when you get home," he suggested. "As for your boyfriend, he's an ass. Trust me, I work in a bar. I can point them out one by one."
Tarah silently nodded, still trying to process everything that had just happened. She had managed to conquer a fear, only to be faced with disappointment. Could she ever just win?
"Anyway, I must get back in," he threw the cigarette on the ground. "Sorry for having to kick you out."
"It's fine." Tarah felt her head starting to ache, along with her hand, and she turned to walk home. She didn't have far to go and needed to clear her thoughts. After taking a few steps, she noticed that her hand was starting to throb with intense pain and feared that if she didn't get some ice on it soon, it'd be a mess the next day. Glancing toward some cabs parked nearby, she decided to splurge and get a lift home.
Feeling frustrated, defeated, and depressed, she jumped into an older white car and gave her address. As soon as she sat down, she noticed the mixture of stale air and BO that filled the vehicle. Wonderful, she thought. She couldn't even get a cab that wasn't disgusting.
"Have a bad night?" The driver asked as they headed in the direction of her apartment building. Looking up into the rearview mirror, she noticed the cabbie for the first time. In a way, Tarah almost wished she hadn't. He was an older guy, balding, but with a few long strands of stringy, blond hair falling onto his shoulders-as if having a few sprigs of long hair made up for what was missing on the top of his head. He was fat, wore unclean clothes, and had coffee cups thrown all through the car. She was slightly repulsed and started to feel she should have just walked home.
"Why?" she asked skeptically.
"I saw you gettin' thrown out of the bar." He winked at her in the rearview mirror. She didn't reply, just wanting the drive to be done.
"So did you get all rowdy and wild in there?" He winked at her again. She shook her head and glared at him.
"Maybe a little too much to drink?"
"No, I'm fine." Her voice was small. She felt so defeated at that moment. The entire night had been a disaster. Did she really need this shit now?
"Are you sure honey?" He turned around slightly just as they arrived at her apartment building. His hand touched her leg and attempted to move up her thigh when she abruptly pushed it off.
"How much do I owe you?" she said, suddenly very alert. What if this guy was a psycho and wouldn't let her out of the cab? Someone told her once that if you didn't pay, cabbies had the option to lock the doors and not let you out. What if he was a rapist? She felt ill even thinking about it. Dear God, get me out of this situation.
"Depends on how you want to pay." He raised his eyebrows. Tarah glanced at the big red numbers on the dashboard, pulled out a bill, and threw it at him before jumping out of the car and running up the concrete stairs toward the main door. Reaching into her pocket, she couldn't find her key.
This can't be happening to me! She saw the cabbie parking the car and turning off the lights. Tarah's heart was pounding violently in her chest as her hand searched the other pocket. She finally located the key and opened the main door. Flying inside, she didn't look back to see if he was following. The main entrance automatically locked behind her. For once in her life, Tarah was glad she had listened to her mother's constant nagging about moving into a security building. What if she hadn't? What kind of position would she be in?
Running up another set of stairs, she made it to the second floor of the small apartment building. Her hands shook as she unlocked the door and went inside. Locking it behind her, still in the dark, Tarah collapsed on the floor and started to sob, barely gasping for air. Feeling a pain developing in her chest, Tarah feared she was having a panic attack. Why were these awful things always happening to her? What did she do to deserve all this? What was wrong that all her boyfriends either cheated on her or didn't think she was worth their time? Why did other girls have men hanging on their heels while she had guys treating her like she was garbage on their shoes? Even the cab driver was treating her as if she was a two-dollar whore, rather than a respectable female. Did she send off some kind of message without realizing it?
Questions flowed through her head and her aching hand became less and less bearable. She stood up and glanced out the window. The cab was gone. Tarah turned on the lights and walked into the bathroom. Without looking in the mirror, she ran warm water into the sink, grabbed a washcloth, and roughly wiped away the tears and makeup. Looking into her own eyes, she saw a sorrow that filled her with a combination of self-pity and desperation.
Going back into the kitchen, she found a bag of frozen corn and wrapped it around her hand. It continued to hurt, but she almost didn't care. At least a painful hand was curable. But what about a painful life? How did you fix that?
After double-checking that her door was locked, Tarah turned off the bathroom and kitchen lights and went into her bedroom. Pulling off her jeans, she replaced them with a pair of shorts. Tarah left on the top she had specifically purchased for the bar that night. She wanted to wear a color that inspired confidence, and on a whim, chose the tight, red tank top that would only suit a figure as tiny as her own.
Collapsing on the bed, corn still wrapped around her hand, Tarah glanced at the phone and noted that her answering machine had a message on it. She listened. It was from Jeff. He was trying to justify what had happened that night, but somehow, he still managed to blame Tarah for everything. At first, his logic made her laugh hysterically, but then tears formed in her eyes. Glancing at the clock, she knew it was late, but decided to make the call anyway. She was desperate.
"Hi, I really have to talk." Tarah broke down on the phone. She had promised herself that she wouldn't cry, but the tears were running down her cheeks full force. "This has been the worst night of my life."
Chapter TwoThey were set to meet at a trendy coffee shop the following morning. Tarah was the first to arrive, and after buying a very elaborate and overpriced specialty cup, which included whipping cream and sprinkles, she chose a seat at the back of the room. All around her, groups of friends sat together, talking and laughing over their drinks, while others sat alone, reading a book or newspaper. The staff appeared friendly and relaxed, the complete opposite of Rothman's, the discount department store where Tarah worked. She found her work environment to be stressful and unfulfilling to say the least.
Taking a sip of her drink, she quickly realized why it was so expensive. Unlike the coffee she grabbed at work every morning, this one was worth the extra money. She decided that her best friend was right to suggest this place. Glancing toward the door, then the counter, she noted that Wendy still hadn't arrived. Fashionably late as usual, Tarah thought, feeling uncomfortable as she sat by herself.
Just as Sarah McLachlan's song "Into the Fire" gently flowed through the room, Wendy Stuart finally made her appearance. Gliding through the doors, she waved at Tarah and headed toward the counter to place her order. It appeared that the staff was acquainted with the outgoing, young woman as they acknowledged her and rushed to make her coffee. Then again, Tarah considered, Wendy did work at a nearby bank. She probably dropped in daily for her morning brew.
"Hey, you!" Wendy was her usual bubbly self as she approached Tarah's table, pushing a strand of her caramel-brown hair from her eyes. Unlike Tarah, her friend had naturally wavy hair that always looked perfect. Her eyes were a deep, chocolate brown, and she had cute freckles on her face. These were all traits Tarah envied, while Wendy hated them. Placing her coffee on the table, Wendy removed a short, black trench coat and sat it on the chair beside her. She wore a plain, black T-shirt and a pair of Levi's. Plopping down in the chair across from Tarah, she studied her friend. "I hope you're feeling better today."
Excerpted from Fire by Mima Copyright © 2010 by Mima. Excerpted by permission.
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