Illustration by Kelly Bjork
I went to the Twilight Exit on Sunday night because that’s their karaoke night, and karaoke has always been my favorite way to celebrate something. At the time, I was a freelance writer for Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, and I had a full page scheduled for the very next issue, which was coming out Wednesday. It was a news story about my apartment building, which was located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The building had recently sold to a development company, and the new owners were doing invasive construction remodels while they were also drastically boosting everyone’s rent. Their treatment of tenants raised interesting ethical questions, and I knew my piece would do well. All the hard work was over. That night I was going to sing “Hello” by Lionel Richie.
My friend Lexi met me in the bar. She came straight from the airport following a trip to D.C. to visit a buddy she’d met in the Navy. Lexi and I sat in the lounge, by the back wall, where the dead-end aisle abuts the horseshoe bar. I mentioned to her we were lucky to have snagged the spots. The bar always filled up fast, and it was better to be out of the dining area because the karaoke often got loud, and Lexi and I had a lot to chat about. I was still getting to know her. Lexi was new to Seattle, while I’d been here more than a decade. She and I come from the same Wisconsin town, where the population hovers around 2,500, and many of the residents take up employment at a nearby beef jerky factory. I grew up on a cranberry marsh. Lexi’s parents owned a bar and restaurant. Lexi and I share a birthday, but she’s closer in age to my younger brother Stosh, who was good friends with Lexi’s older brother. By association, Stosh regarded Lexi as a kid-sister figure. She once described a night they endured together, sharing a too-small bed out of necessity. Lexi was smashed against Stosh so tightly that his nipple left an imprint on her cheek, she said. Around the time of the shooting, we’d both started new jobs, and as it happens today, we’re both at the same places. Lexi works as a power dispatcher. “I monitor and operate Seattle’s electrical grid. I love it. I operate in real time, so I know about accidents or water-main breaks or other events. It makes me feel connected to the city,” she says. I’m a seamstress in an alternative bridal shop. I sew custom-made wedding gowns of every imaginable color: egg-yolk yellow, gasoline brown, lipstick purple, dish-soap blue. For a time, I wrote a conceptual fashion column for the paper I mentioned earlier, and the gigs paired together well.
At the Twilight, a collection of ordinary things happened in arbitrary succession. Lexi and I chatted, we ordered beers, we requested our songs. (Hers was “Faith” by George Michael.) Lexi mentioned she’d had a couple drinks on the plane, then she grabbed a paper and flipped through it. A towheaded hipster in a Def Leppard shirt started a conversation with me about Def Leppard. They were his favorite band, he said. A guy friend texted me to say he was on his way. Once he arrived, it was likely he and I would sing “New Sensation” by INXS. Somewhere in all this, I glanced up and noticed a man. He was standing at the bar. He paused at the counter, then he left.
I thought he might’ve been Black or Hispanic, possibly Italian. Later, I would learn his name was James. He wore a white long-sleeve Henley, blue jeans, and a gray knit cap. He looked distraught. It puzzled me that he hadn’t waited for the bartender to approach him, but I didn’t give it much attention. Not long after, a woman came into the lounge. She wore a black cardigan and a black shirt, and she had dark skin and long, wavy black hair. I thought she might’ve been half-Asian, and maybe Black or Hispanic. I would learn later her name was Whitney. She sat at the bar, across from me and Lexi, in direct view. I watched as the bouncer Greg approached her. He asked to see her ID, and he was friendly about it. She peered into her phone, actively ignoring him. I couldn’t understand her response. As I told a detective later that night, I thought she was being “pretty rude.” A bartender who recognized Whitney noticed the exchange and assured Greg she was of age. Then Greg went back to his post, and Whitney settled in, ordered a beer, patiently sipped it.
Soon after, the man from earlier was back at the bar. He approached Whitney. He was shouting, and it was disruptive. Lexi and I stopped and watched. He got right in her face, though I didn’t see that he ever touched her. He was saying things like, “You left my door unlocked. They took everything. They took my flat-screen TV. You let all these people into my house and all my stuff is gone.” James hurled sentence after sentence at Whitney. She remained a vision of perfect indifference. She kept her phone at her ear. She quietly said, “I don’t know this man. I’ve never seen him before in my life. Someone call the cops,” but her affect was oddly flat. Quickly, Greg appeared and escorted James outside. As they were walking away, Whitney announced, “Call 911. I don’t know him,” and then the door closed, and it was over. I studied Whitney’s face. It held no expression. Lexi leaned into me and said, “She’s totally lying. She’s feigning ignorance. You can tell they know each other, for real.”
The whole thing made me impatient. I couldn’t sense any real danger. I figured they fought in public because they relished having an audience, and I didn’t want to indulge them. I shooed off the residual awkwardness and got back to my night. Lexi had a Polaroid with her, so we took a couple pictures. It was fun. I posed with the paper because I had a full-page pictorial in print that week. It was the annual wedding issue, and I’d asked a few local designers to create veils. They came up with some delightfully crazy shit. They used hot-dog wrappers, plastic shower curtains, dog muzzles, and other symbolic items. That night, I was wearing bright purple jeans and giant hoop earrings. Lexi had a new hairdo—an asymmetrical bob dyed cherry auburn. She wore black leggings, a black skirt, and a red cardigan over a white shirt. “It was a T-shirt, and it said, THANK GOD! and it had, like, this huge exclamation mark,” remembers Lexi. For her portrait, I snapped her getting hammy with a painting. As we watched the pictures develop, I said, “Now we’ll never forget tonight, not in a million years,” and we both laughed.
The Polaroids taken moments before James’s return
Fifteen or twenty minutes passed, and suddenly, a loud sound filled the room. “I wasn’t worried. I thought it was a balloon popping. For two seconds, I thought: ‘Oh—ha ha,’” said Lexi. I heard someone shout, “He shot Greg.” Lexi and I dropped to the ground and crouched beneath the bar, waiting, listening to screams. I noticed Whitney and a couple other customers as they gathered into our area. Lexi and I backed ourselves out of the way, deeper into the corner of the dead end. I couldn’t see much, but later I would learn there were five of us, all women. At once, James turned the bend. He had a gun, and he was holding it at waist level. He stopped and stood over us as we huddled together. He could’ve easily killed us all if he wanted to.
Photo Credit: Seattle Police Department
“So this is how I die,” I thought to myself. It gave me a heavy feeling. There was another element to it, a kind of distant amusement. I’d spent my whole life guessing how it was going to happen, and here it was. When I looked up at James, things became strange. I could feel my vision distorting. As I remember his gun, it appeared vividly, but everything surrounding it blurred away. (Trauma-expert psychologist Dr. Laura Brown told me the effect is known as weapon focus. It happens because “our brains alert us to threat, and we alert to the weapon because that’s where the threat is. The attention just narrows down. It causes witnesses to be bad at remembering what the person holding the weapon looked like,” she said.) Beside me on the floor, Lexi experienced these same moments very differently. “I don’t remember focusing in on the gun. He had something in his hand, but I was trying to not look at anything. I was trying to keep my head down. I was scared, and I wanted to make myself as small as possible,” she said.
It was hard to tell exactly what was happening, but I pieced a narrative together. This was the same angry man from earlier, and now he was coming back for his girlfriend who was right next to me. I felt her body backing into mine. It made me frantic. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, get her away from me.’ Throughout, I kept my eyes on James’s face. His expression embodied a total focus. I could tell he believed he had no other choice. I became aware that James was looking only at Whitney, and his gun was pointed only at Whitney. I had the sense I was violating something private, that I’d wandered into an enclosed world. I understood with certainty that James wasn’t interested in harming me. I rose up and moved past him, down the narrow aisle. Apart from a couple bar stools in the background, I’d remembered my escape path as perfectly clear. (Months later, when I listened to the court testimony of a different witness, I learned there were two women huddled on the ground directly in front of me. They had to have been right in my way.)
Lexi was on the floor behind me, but I didn’t consider her until I was standing. The space was snug, and James was right there. It seemed risky to double back. I decided to keep going, and I decided to leave Lexi behind. It was impossible to not do both at once. This hurt me a lot. The situation made me resentful. I told myself the whole thing was stupid, just really stupid, and Lexi would be totally fine. As I ran through the dining area, my movements felt thick, I appraised myself in a flash of hateful words: fat, clumsy, slow. I imagined getting shot in the back. I considered crouching as I ran, but it seemed too impractical. Pushing open the door brought a stark relief, but it didn’t last. When I passed through the entryway, I glanced down and saw on the cement a huge pool of blood. This led to Greg, who was on the ground, just outside the door. It was too much. I tried to block it out. I didn’t let my eyes take him in.
A man was standing over Greg. I recognized him as Steve, a karaoke-night regular, though we’d never officially met. Steve handed his cell to me. He said he was on hold with 911. He kept his voice clear and slow, and his decisiveness was comforting. He recited the bar’s address a couple times so I’d know what to say when they picked up. Steve’s phone was heavily smeared with blood, and as I took it, the blood got on my hands too. As I waited for the operator, I strayed off, tucking myself into a tiny space nearby, where a tall wooden fence encased a dumpster. It was a tight squeeze, and I could barely move, but I had a full view of the entrance, and I was able to crouch out of sight if I needed to. “I’m OK,” I told myself. “I’m OK,” I told myself again, and then again and again. The more I repeated it, the emptier it felt. I got a terrible feeling that things would not end well. I’d brought Lexi to this place, and if she died, it’d be my fault. The feeling wouldn’t land. Most of them didn’t. I felt numb, disoriented. I blamed Lexi for staying behind. I grew smug. Random thoughts slipped through. I pictured my body on a metal table. A stranger looking down at me. Ass-up. Naked. Legs need shaving. Cellulite on the backs of my upper thighs.
I stared at the entryway, willing Lexi to come through, but soon I realized I was waiting helplessly in yet another dead end, so I edged back out to the alleyway. By the time the operator picked up, Lexi had stumbled out from the building. She was fine. When I saw her I wanted to fold her into my arms, laugh-crying and squeezing her, saying stuff like, “Oh thank God. Don’t ever do that to me again, Lexi, you big silly weirdo.”
There was no time for that, of course. As Lexi describes her passage outside, “I didn’t notice any blood in the entryway. I kept my eyes on the door.” When she saw Greg, “he was upright, kind of leaning against the wall. He was being so calm. He was saying, ‘I can’t believe I got shot. I can’t believe this is happening.’” She and Steve quickly worked together, shoving Greg’s body away from the entrance and around the corner. The spot gave Greg a little cover. “He was in a lot of pain. We were trying to pull him, he was screaming because it hurt so bad,” she said.
Meanwhile, I hung back, talking to the operator. She asked a couple standard questions, but her tone was sharp, and that irritated me. When she said the police were on their way, I couldn’t see the point in talking to her longer, so I cut her off abruptly. I handed the phone to Lexi, who spoke to the woman in bursts: “He’s inside. He’s inside. He had a gun. He’s inside. I don’t know, I think he might have shot her,” she said. As Lexi remembers, “Greg was right there, and I told the operator, ‘He’s bleeding to death.’ He must’ve heard me. I felt so awful about that. I really didn’t think they were gonna find him in time.”
When Lexi finished speaking, I took back the phone. I thought about running away. I wanted to. We were out in the open. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The door was right there. If James came out shooting, we’d be dead. At the same time, abandoning the scene would show everyone I was a worthless asshole. Especially when Lexi and Steve were attending to Greg so purposely. It was dark outside, and to help them see, I shined the phone’s light in the direction of Greg’s injuries. I directed my gaze to a patch of cement just above Greg’s head. Whatever was happening below his jeans, I didn’t want to know.
As Lexi remembers, she’d taken off her sweater to use as a tourniquet, and Steve was applying pressure. “I didn’t realize how high the bullet hole was until we took his pants off,” said Lexi. “There was this perfect little round hole. It looked black against his white flesh. It was pulsing. It was horrible. The blood was, like, pulsing out in waves. He was losing tons of blood. It was coming out fast,” she said.