St. Louis, Missouri
The throbbing bass of the stereo rattled the dingy windows of the two-story house, and Nina wrinkled her nose at some unidentifiable, raunchy smell that wafted in her direction. The house was being rented by a friend of a friend of a friend of Katys, and word around campus was that this annual bash was legendary.
The girls had arrived several hours earlier, intent on unwinding and celebrating the momentous occasion of completing their first month of college, but were disappointed to find that most of the guests were strangers. Still, there was beer, although it had grown warm as the evening progressed. And there was a selection of food that consisted of more than just Doritos and pretzels, a rarity at student gatherings. They were quickly encouraged to stay and enjoy the festivities.
A skinny man with a long nose, so long it resembled a beak more than any human nose, bumped into Nina as he tried to shoulder his way past her.
"Hey." She flicked a dollop of beer suds off the arm of her shirt. "Ugh. Gross."
Still juggling four dripping plastic cups of brew in his hands, he glanced up at her and smiled, obviously pleased that his unintended victim just so happened to be a pretty co-ed. Unconsciously, he straightened his back and opened his mouth, but before he could say a word, Nina caught sight of Gwens flaming red hair and began to weave her way through the throng of drunken partygoers. "Gwen," she said loudly, her voice not carrying over the music, laughter, and occasional shriek from an unknown source. Her eyes fluttered closed as the thumping at the base of her skull rivaled the beat of the music. Adding to her misery was the intermingled smell of hops, perfume, cologne, and sweat. That, or the seven chicken wings drenched in an indistinguishable sauce that shed recently consumed and then washed down with two jumbo lukewarm beers, was making her sick to her stomach.
Nina held up one hand and waved, hoping that her friend would spot her. "Gwen!"
The taller girl paused in her conversation with a small group of students from her French class and glanced around, trying to locate her caller. When she spotted Nina, she motioned her over. "Here!"
"Hey." Nina smiled at strangers as she joined the group. A little green around the gills, she waved off the offer of another beer.
"This is Nina Chilton, one of my roommates," Gwen introduced politely.
"Nina!" the group chorused back in greeting.
Nina chuckled. It was clear that every last one of them was as drunk as a sailor on a three-day pass. She tilted her head up to speak directly into Gwens ear in an attempt to be heard. "Lets find the others and go."
Gwen frowned. "You want the others to find snow? What will you do with
it if you get it?"
Nina rolled her eyes and pointed toward the door. "Go," she mouthed. "I want to go."
Gwen shook her head firmly, the movement nearly causing her to slosh the contents of her drink onto the floor. "Nuh uh. Im having too much fun." Shed had several beers already and needed to concentrate to keep Ninas face in focus. She plucked at Ninas wet sleeve. "What happened?"
Nina made a face. "Some jerk spilled beer on me." Then a warm hand settled on her shoulder and she smiled without bothering to turn around, quite certain who it belonged to. While neither Jacie nor Nina had had the courage to take their relationship to the next level, both knew that they shared something more than friendship.
"Hi, Jacie," Gwen said, taking another long sip of the heady brew. "You dont look like youre having much fun."
Jacie plucked Gwens glass from her hand and polished off the contents in one long sip. "Sure I am." She grinned wildly and licked away her foam mustache.
"Uh oh. Somebodys going to be sick tomorrow," Nina teased. "And boy am I glad shes not my roomie."
The smile suddenly slid off Jacies face as she absorbed Ninas words. "Are you really glad?" she asked with surprising seriousness, a tiny pout forming.
Ninas heart clenched and she chided herself for letting Jacie's words affect her so, knowing it was the alcohol that was talking. "Of course not, Jace," she said tenderly, reaching up to clasp the hand that still rested on her shoulder. "I was only teasing."
Jacies face was suddenly transformed by a lopsided grin. "Dont worry. I wont be sick."
Curious, Gwen watched her friends, seeing them as if it were the very first time.
Nina poked Jacies belly with mock fierceness. "But if you were sick"
"Youd be right there." Jacies grin grew. "Disgusted, but there."
Nina laughed. "Exactly."
Dumbfounded, Gwen continued to silently observe her friends. The rest of the room, she realized, had faded away for them; they only had eyes for each other. She blinked slowly, letting the information penetrate the fog that shrouded her senses. The shared smiles, the position of their bodies, the gentleness in Jacies normal brash personality, and the openness in Ninas often quiet demeanor, all told her one, utterly impossible thing. She grimaced as she felt an irrational stab of envy at their obvious closeness, along with a wave of revulsion.
Jacies expression gentled and she leaned forward to say something directly into Ninas ear.
Gwen couldnt hear what was being said, but the look on Ninas face said more than words ever could. Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach. Their relationship wasnt like that! It couldnt be. Shed known them forever, and though it had been a while since either had been on a date, that was just a social slump, not something more catastrophic. Of course, she mused silently, even Audrey goes out more than they do, whereas they only seem truly contented with each others company. On the other handGwens rust-colored eyebrows contractedshed seen them both with boys, seen them kissing boys, in fact.
She scrubbed her face with one hand, then hiccupped loudly. It was all so confusing. Jacie suddenly handed her back the empty plastic cup. Dully, Gwen stared into it, as though the answers to her questions might be written on the bottom.
The front door opened, pushing aside a group of students who were standing in front of it, and Malcolm Langtree strode in, proud and tall. On his heels another small group of rowdy-looking men and women, most of them several years older than the college kids who already filled the house, pushed their way inside and headed straight for one of the kegs of beer.
Instantly, Gwens thoughts were derailed. Malcolm was so handsome and funny and his smile was so beautiful that she found herself sighing out loud. She glanced back at Nina and Jacie, who were still talking. She looked harder, but this time was unable to see what shed thought shed spotted only seconds before. She swayed back a little into the person behind her. "This beer is making me think the craziest things!" she announced good-naturedly, putting her ridiculous thoughts behind her and focusing on something much more pleasurable, like her new boyfriend.
"Whoa." Jacie's and Ninas hands shot out to grab Gwen, who seemed to be tipping over.
"Im fine," she protested, slapping their hands away.
"Youre drunk," Jacie corrected, keeping a light grip on Gwens elbow.
"So are you," Gwen shot back, irritated at Jacie for pointing out the obvious, and a little ashamed for overindulging. She turned toward Malcolm and waited impatiently for his searching gaze to find hers.
"I sure am," Jacie agreed, suddenly sounding surprisingly sober. "But you dont see me falling into people."
"Its after midnight, you two. We all drank too much and its time to go home," Nina said, yawning around the words. "Lets go. Weve still got to find Audrey in all this mess. Shes driving."
Gwen chuckled to herself, recalling Audreys groaning protest that it wasnt fair that she always ended up as the one who had to stay sober and drive when the drinks were free.
A loud crash caused everyone to jump. And for a long second the room was silent as everyone held their breath. Then a wave of laughter rolled over the crowd as a young man opened his eyes, shook his head, and rolled off a pile of wood that formerly had resembled a dining room table. His hysterical buddies helped him to his feet, before he collapsed down upon the pile again.
Jacie shook her head. "We are never having a party at our place. This house is going to be trashed by morning."
Ninas eyes widened as she took in the destruction around her. "You mean it isnt already?"
"Hello, ladies." Malcolm, dressed in a tight-fitting, mint green Polo shirt with the collar turned up, sidled next to them and then focused on the young woman who had captured more than his attention. He smiled boyishly. "Hello, Gwendolyn."
Gwen fought hard not to swoon.
Jacie sniggered. "Gwendolyn?" Shed never heard Gwen go by her full name.
"What is it, Jacie Ann?" Gwen asked in a sugary voice, emphasizing the full name Jacie's family usually used.
Nina covered her mouth to keep from laughing at how quickly that wiped the smug look from Jacies face.
Malcolm wrapped a long arm around Gwens shoulder. Clearly smitten, he pulled her close. "There were rumors all the way over at my fraternity that there was a party going on here and, more importantly, that there was a beautiful girl here who was not to be missed." He kissed her cheek. "The rumors were true."
Gwen blushed becomingly, and Jacie and Nina both rolled their eyes, quite sure if there were a rumor like that floating around that Gwen would have been sure to have started it herself.
"We were just leaving," Nina announced, seeing that her friend wasnt going to want to go any time soon. She wrinkled her nose and sighed. "I have to work tomorrow."
Malcolms eyes went round. "But tomorrows Saturday!" He protested in horror, clutching Gwen a little tighter as if to ward off the disgusting words.
"No kidding," Jacie said dryly, doing her best not to hold Malcolms privileged background against him. She had to work the next day and she knew that Gwen did too.
"Lets dance," Gwen said abruptly, before Jacie went and did something stupid and told Malcolm about her own afternoon shift at JC Pennys the next day. She wrapped her arms around his belt and began tugging him in the direction of a corner of the room where the people were, despite the fast tempo of the deafening music, slowly swaying and playing tonsil hockey.
His eyes lit up. In the weeks theyd been dating, she hadnt done more than give him gentle and all-too-brief kisses on the cheek and lips. "Yes, maam!" he replied happily, waggling his fingers at Nina as he allowed Gwen to drag him where he most certainly wanted to go.
"Guess she found her ride home," Jacie surmised, happy for Gwens good fortune with Malcolm. Despite being ignorant of the realities of middle and lower class life, he truly seemed like a good guy. Maybe Gwens mother had been right all long. It was just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one, shed said. And that appeared to be the truth, at least for Gwen Hopkins.
Nina rubbed the bridge of her nose and whimpered. "Is the music getting louder or is it just that my head is getting ready to explode?"
Jacie gave her a sympathetic look. Her parents were both smokers and the thick cloud that permeated the room was all but unnoticed by her. She knew, however, that it didnt take long to make Nina feel puny. "Were off. We can walk and let Audrey drive Gwen home if Malcolm doesnt."
Nina smiled, relieved. "Deal." They set out to find Audrey and Katy to let them know their plans.
Large, cardboard signs that had been placed all over the house declared the upstairs bedrooms off-limits and so the crowd was sparse there compared to the rest of house. It held only a few brave couples who were using the rooms as hiding places to make-out, and a snaking line of partygoers waiting impatiently to use the houses only working bathroom.
A pair of angry girls were banging on the bathroom door and cursing. "Cmon, your turn's up!"
Jacies eyes traveled the length of the line. "I dont see them,"
she said loudly.
Nina looked toward the bathroom, hearing the faint sound of raised voices from behind the bathroom door over the noise in the hallway. "They must be in the bathroom."
Jacies eyes widened. "Together?"
The word was still hanging in the air when the bathroom door flew open and a red-faced Katy stormed out with Audrey following right behind her.
The line of people all cheered.
"Yeah, yeah," Katy mumbled in acknowledgment, flipping them the bird as she headed for the stairs.
"Whats wrong?" Nina asked Audrey.
"Shes mad," Audrey explained, pushing her way between two rather large men. "Excuse me. Uff Coming through."
"I can see shes mad," Jacie said. "Steam is pouring out
of her ears like on the cartoons. But why?"
They made their way down the stairs, with Katy leading a fiery path to the front doorway.
"Because," Audrey continued, setting her near empty cup on a coffee table as they moved. "I told her she couldnt sleep with every guy she thinks is cute. The bathroom was the only place with a little privacy."
Katy whirled around and pointed an angry finger at her cousin, beyond caring that they were now having this discussion in public. "I do not do that, Audrey," she ground out, her eyes flashing.
Audrey lifted her chin along with one eyebrow and Jacie and Nina exchanged worried glances. That meant she wasnt backing down. "And just where did I find you after I spent 30 minutes looking for you?" Imperiously, she tossed a shock of curls over one shoulder as she waited for Katys answer.
"Where I was is none of your business."
Audrey turned to Jacie. "She was in one of the bedrooms with some guy she met ten minutes earlier."
"Shut up, Audrey," Katy warned darkly, a flush working up her neck. "His name is Frank and I met him a couple of hours ago and all we were doing is kissing." She swallowed, her mouth already feeling cottony after several hours of drinking. "Which we would still be doing if you hadnt so rudely interrupted us!"
Audreys eyes softened, but she pressed forward because she truly believed what she was saying was for Katys own good. "Do you really know this guy?"
Katys cheeks flushed even darker when she was forced to admit that she didnt know much more than she was attracted to him and that the feeling was mutual. "You are walking home!" She waved a jangling set of keys in front of Audreys face.
"Why did Audrey give her the car keys?" Nina whispered loudly to Jacie. "Now well have to wrestle them away from her."
"Nuh uh." Jacie could hardly contain her laughter as she pointed to the keys that Katy thought were her car keys but was too tipsy to notice were really the keys to Audreys gym locker.
"The hell Im walking home," Audrey said, easily waving off Katys threat. "It might be your car, but Im the designated driver tonight." She put a hand on one hip. "And just so you know, no guy is going to buy the cow if he gets the milk for free."
"Jesus, you sound just like Granny, or even worse, Gwen!" Katy rolled her eyes petulantly, but her anger was already draining away. Audrey had always been there to watch her back, and she hers; it was comforting as few things in her life were. And yet, sometimes, especially now that they were in college, the closeness was like wearing a tight wool sweater in July.
"This is the 1980s, not the 50s, and I control my own body," Katy said. Her tone was as serious as Jacie and Nina had ever heard it. "Its my milk to give."
"And are you happy with all these boyfriends who dont mean anything?" Audrey asked pointedly, unfazed by the fact that they were having such a private conversation in the middle of a party. "Because if you are, you can make ice-cream with your milk for all I care." She crossed her arms over her ample chest. "I want you to be happy, but I dont think you are."
"Yeah, yeah." Audrey held up her hands. "I just get worried
about you, Katy. Its dangerous to go off alone with a virtual stranger.
And what happens when you meet some guy you really love and he finds out youve
made out with every other guy on campus?"
"Hell wonder why he wasnt lucky enough to meet me sooner?"
"Hell think youre easy."
"But I" Katy paused mid-sentence and sighed. It wasnt that Audrey was a prudeshe wasntit was more that she was a starry-eyed romantic who didnt seem to understand that real life wasnt like the Harlequin Romances her mother bought by the dozen at every yard sale in Hazelton.
Katy nodded a little, reluctantly acknowledging Audreys genuine concern. When she didnt say more as she turned around and started walking again, her friends knew the argument was over.
An hour-and-a-half passed with the party still going strong, but by two a.m.
the crowd had thinned considerably, leaving behind mostly latecomers and those
too drunk to travel.
Malcolm was seated at a sticky coffee table with Gwen sitting next to him as he played poker with several Rivermen baseball players.
"You want another beer?" Gwen asked, reaching high above her head and stretching the kinks out of her shoulders. She still had a strong buzz going, though things werent quite as fuzzy as they had been a couple of hours earlier.
Malcolm took the opportunity to drop his cards and tickle her stomach. To his delight, Gwen giggled wildly as he tortured her. "Sure," he chuckled and reached to tickle her underarms where he knew his actions would have their most devastating effect. "But only if youre getting one for yourself."
"Ugh!" She finally wiggled free, then leaned over and gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek, then lips, feeling more uninhibited than she could remember. A large portion of the smoke had cleared, and although the music was still pounding, the crowd had thinned to the point that she felt like she could breathe again. She also noticed another very strong sensation. "Youll have to wait for your beer now. After all that tickling, I have to use the bathroom." She blushed fiercely when Malcolm lifted his eyebrows.
"Do you want me to walk you up?"
Im in love with him, she thought giddily. Its only been a few weeks, but its true. Gwen laughed, having more fun than she had in ages. "No, silly." Her gaze drifted to the stairwell. The line to the bathroom was gone. "I saw Phyllis from my Western Civilization class heading up there a few minutes ago, but I havent seen her since. There must still be a line upstairs." She giggled inwardly. Or she and that short boy with the glasses are going at it hot 'n heavy in one of the bedrooms.
Malcolm looked doubtful. "Youre sure? I can"
"Come on, Malcolm!" the other card players moaned. "Youre holding up the game, man," the second basemen said. "For Christs sake, let her go pee on her own. Shes not that drunk."
Malcolm began to bristle but was quickly soothed by Gwen standing and affectionately ruffling his hair. "Ill be back after I wait in the never ending line from hell."
He grabbed her hand and gave it a little squeeze before letting go and focusing on his cards. "If youre not back in 30 minutes, Ill look for the puddle," he called after her, his eyes on a pair of aces. The games other players laughed loudly.
Sure enough, there was a line for the bathroom, but it was blessedly short and consisted of total strangers.
"They fixed the bathroom downstairs," one of the women told the other.
Gwen nodded a little. No wonder the line here had dwindled to nothing. "Lucky us."
Happily, the souls in front of her were quick to do their business, and in only a few minutes she was at the head of the line with no one behind her to talk to.
Two more minutes, and a husky woman with the biggest hair Gwen had ever seen, staggered from the bathroom.
"Careful," Gwen warned the woman as she nearly collided with her.
"Whoops!" Rubber-legged, the woman swerved to miss Gwen, then fell with a mighty thud. "Ouch," she said slowly. She glanced around, clearly confused. "Why am I on the floor?"
Gwen smothered a snort. "You fell. Are you okay?"
"I think so."
Gwen bent unsteadily to help her, making certain the woman had a good hold of the stair railing before her bladder, protesting loudly, forced her to hurry back toward the bathroom door. Gwen's hand had just clasped the cool metal of the doorknob when she felt two warm arms wrap around her and a stubbly cheek nuzzle her neck from behind.
She smiled. Being in love was, she decided, everything shed hoped it would be. "Decided you had to go too, huh? God, dont squeeze too hard, Malcolm. Ill have an accident," she chuckled. "I swear." She took a step into the bathroom expecting him to let go. Instead, she was followed inside and she let out a surprised laugh. "You cant come in here with me. Thats gross."
Gwen glanced down at the arms that were still wrapped snuggly around her trim waist. A dark sweatshirt covered them. It took only a second for it to register that Malcolm hadnt been wearing long sleeves. Her heart leapt into her throat. "Mal"
She screamed as she was shoved headfirst all the way inside the small room. The room went black as the harsh florescent lights were flicked off and a strong hand slammed her head against the tank of the porcelain commode.
Her world exploded in pain.
"Shhh," a low voice hissed, the sound dancing at the ragged edges of her awareness.
Stars invaded her vision for several long seconds as fingers dug into her neck and she felt salty sweat from the tank dampen her cheek and trickle downward. She blinked dazedly, her head swimming as she clung to consciousness. Was that blood she tasted? "Puh... Uh... Ungh."
Gwen tried to bring a shaking hand to her forehead. Then she weakly pushed up from her belly-down position on the toilet. But on her way up, her wrist was instantly grasped and a heavy body molded itself to her back, threatening to send her to her knees. She screamed again as she tried to turn around, but the fingers moved from her wrist to wind themselves into her hair.
She sucked in a breath when her head was savagely yanked backwards, the skin on her face pulled tight enough to expose her bloody teeth.
"Bitch." The word was spoken harshly, directly into her ear, hot breath raising the hairs on the back of her neck, before the hot breath disappeared.
"No!" she cried, panic hitting her full force. But she only had time to gasp before she felt more than heard a low growl. Her face was slammed against the tank lid again. The loud crunch of her mouth and nose against the porcelain caused her stomach to lurch and this time the dancing stars couldnt be blinked away.
Her breathing came in short pants as she tasted her own blood and smelled urine and beer. One of her arms was twisted high on her back and she squealed in pain, the searing sensation snapping her mind in better focus. "What why are doing this?" She thought shed said the words out loud, but she couldnt hear them over her thundering heart.
Fingers fumbled over her face until her chin and cheeks were being grasped so tightly that bruises instantly rose to the surface of the soft skin. "Shh!" Then, the fingers gentled and patted her in a comforting motion, much as a parent would a child.
He hiccupped loudly, then clapped his hand over her mouth, his body shaking with silent, drunken laughter.
Her heart was pounding so hard that every beat hurt. The hand quickly left her face and grabbed hold of the waistband of her jeans, jerking her up so that one of her knees came to rest on the fuzzy toilet seat lid. She felt fingers fumbling at the button of her jeans and what was about to happen slammed home with devastating force, causing bile to rise in her throat. "Stop," she moaned hoarsely, the faint vision of the dark toilet swimming in front of her.
A leg worked its way between hers; at the same time her jeanss button finally came free.
"Stop. Stop. Stop." Her arm was near breaking, and she could feel the tendons tearing as stabbing pains tore through her elbow and shoulder. She drew in an uneven breath and began to sob. "Please, pl-please stop!" she begged, her body fighting to distance itself from her attacker though she had no place to go. Why is he doing this? Why isnt someone helping me? God, Im screaming!
Her jeans and panties were torn down in a single move, scraping her hips on the way down. Then in a panting rush, he struggled with his own pants.
Gwen resigned herself to her arm snapping in two and she opened her mouth to call out, only to have her face pushed hard against the wet toilet tank, blood marring the white surface, his fingers digging into her cheeks.
"Dont you fuckin move," the man breathed as he positioned himself behind her, his erection brushing the baby-soft skin on her bottom. "Shh!"
Gwen could feel the thrumming beat of the music against her face as the entire house seemed to vibrate with the rhythm of the song. Oh, God. Oh, God. No one can hear me, she thought desperately.
He pushed forward, spreading her legs farther apart with a strong thigh, his hand muffling most of her cries.
Then there was a knock on the bathroom door.
The man froze, nearly inside her. And for a second, so did Gwen. But her paralysis only lasted a split second, and she began to thrash around.
He laid all his weight atop her, crushing her against the toilet and covering her head completely. She smelled the pungent odor of sweat mixed with cologne and began to gag, her throat burning. His chest was pounding so hard that she could feel it through his clothes, and she fuzzily realized that his heart was beating every bit as fast as hers.
Please open the door. Open it! Open it! Open it! Gwen prayed woozily.
Then there was another knock. "Hurry it up!" an impatient female voice called.
Gwens entire body jerked when her attacker lifted his head and made a series of booming retching noises. She supposed it was some sort of trick to make the person on the other side of the door go away, because he wasn't really sick and his body shook with silent chuckles between each retch. She waited, her heart slamming against her ribs, just knowing that the door would open any second and the room would be flooded with light and that Malcolm or someone else would save her. Instead, she heard nothing but the music and the mans harsh breathing.
She began to cry again.
Her captor, suddenly angry at being interrupted, pushed off of her roughly. In his haste to get back into position, he grabbed her good arm and wrenched it up her back, placing his other hand in her hair, and holding her face down so hard that her teeth hurt and her own drool pooled in her cheeks.
She whimpered as her injured arm swung down off her back to hang loosely by her side. Im gonna be sick. "Sick I" This cant be happening. It cant. Im gonna throw up.
A searing pain caused her to lurch forward as he entered her in one savage thrust, and she cried out against the toilet tank. Her eyes opened wide in the darkness, tears leaking down her cheeks and chin. Her stomach rebelled and she began to vomit, tasting rank beer and soggy chips.
"Oh, yeah," he slurred, oblivious to her retching as he hissed out the word in rapture. He grunted and bucked against her faster and faster. Panting hard, he squeezed his butt cheeks together and it took only a few more savage thrusts for him to come deep inside her, his hands tightening convulsively in her hair and around her wrist.
Gwen spat and sucked in a deep lungful of air as his grip shifted, then loosened.
He groaned, then let go of her completely and staggered back a step.
Gwen fell forward, between the toilet and the wall, dizzy and sick as she continued to throw up. She hurt everywhere and her upper thighs were slick and sticky. She thought she heard his zipper being raised, and leaning unsteadily on one arm, she dared to turn and face him, only to be hit in the face with a wet towel. For a split second, it occurred to her that he might intend to kill her, to choke her with the towel. Her heart stopped beating. Im going to die.
But he just stood there, motionless before her, his features totally unidentifiable in the blackness, even the sound of his breathing swept away by the sounds of the party, now that his lips werent pressed against her ear.
"Wipe. And thanks," he said, almost cheerfully, causing her to blink and wonder if shed heard him correctly. In his drunkenness, he had extended a hand to steady himself against the bathroom wall.
Thanks? "You bastard," she seethed, not caring whether he struck her again. But instinctively, she followed his command and wiped at her mouth and chin with the soiled towel.
He opened the bathroom door a crack and slowly poked his head outside. Light poured in, temporarily blinding her, though she could see the vague outline of his body. He wasnt nearly as big as hed seemed.
She dropped the towel as she cowered between the toilet and the wall, her whole body shaking.
Without a glance back, he opened the door and then closed it again, leaving her alone and crying on the dirty bathroom floor.
"I still dont see why you couldnt come back in the morning. My ears havent recovered from earlier." Audrey yawned and eased her way out from behind the wheel of Katys beat-up car. The crowd at the party had grown so sparse that there were no longer any cars parked on the lawn, and they were able to find a spot in front of the next door neighbors house.
"Because," Katy said, scrubbing her face, "the chances of my purse still being here now are practically zip. There is no way on earth that it would still be here in the morning." She glanced down at her cousin as she walked, and lifted an eyebrow. "I could have driven myself, you know."
They continued to move up the sidewalk, stepping over empty beer cups and other rubbish on their way to the front door.
Audreys eyebrows jumped. "With as much beer as youve had tonight? I think not. Lets just find it and get out of here." Her tone of voice was suddenly tired. "I need some sleep." Moodily, she shook her head at the loud music that was still pouring through a few half-opened windows.
"I think I left it upstairs next to the bed in the first room on the right," Katy mumbled, casting her eyes downward before they snapped back up. "And dont you start with me!"
Audrey gave her shoulder a friendly pat as she opened the front door. "I didnt say a word."
"But you wanted to."
Once inside, Katy inhaled a deep breath of smoky air that was tinged with the acrid scent of marijuana. Pot, she had found out the hard way, made her sick. But seeing all the other happy cigarette smokers made her a little peeved that her roommates had taken a vote and forbade her from indulging inside their house.
Audrey waved her hand in front of her face. "Ugh. Where do we start?"
"God." Katy surveyed the wasteland around her, clucking her tongue. "I dont want to have to touch anything here." Mostly sobered up, she was surprised at how seedy her surroundings now appeared. She stepped aside as a dancing couple nearly collided with her. "What were we thinking coming to this dump?"
Katy sighed. "Lets go upstairs, get my bag, and go home."
Audrey nodded. "I" she stopped when a small group of young men huddled around a table caught her eye. She lifted a hand and waved and called out, "Hi, Malcolm." She automatically started looking for Gwen, surprised that she wasnt seated next to him.
Malcolm reluctantly tore his eyes from his cards and spotted Audrey and Katy. He glanced at his watch and frowned. Gwen had been gone for more than 20 minutes. The faded sofa squeaked loudly as he stood and motioned the girls over.
"Didnt think youd still be here," Katy said, moving to his side and plucking the cards from his hand to take a peek. With a dismayed look, she promptly folded on his behalf by tossing his cards into the center of the table.
Disgusted at his latest hand, Malcolm grunted his approval at her actions.
"Wheres Gwen?" Audrey spun in a circle as she gazed around the room.
"Bathroom," Malcolm stated succinctly, taking his seat and waiting
for the next deal. "What do you women do in there, anyway? Shes been
Audrey just shrugged, but Katy smoothly answered in a raised voice and with a Scarlet OHara accent, "Its because were trying to make ourselves look pretty for you boys, Malcolm."
He completely missed the sarcastic edge that had entered her voice and nodded.
"Will you tell her to hurry up?" His glance darted sideways for a few
seconds before it reluctantly met Katys. He lowered his voice and said,
"I miss her."
"Awww ." the other poker players read his lips and began cooing and making kissing noises as Malcolm's cheeks began to heat.
Audrey and Katy gave Malcolm slightly admiring looks. Gwen clearly could have done worse.
"Well bring her down with us," Katy assured him, impatiently nudging Audrey forward and leaving Malcolm to his game.
The second floor appeared abandoned. The hall lights had been shut off and cups and paper plates littered most of the floor, along with several unidentifiable, but nasty-looking, stains.
Audrey wrapped her arms around herself as a shiver skittered down her back. "Its creepy up here in this light." Only the faint golden glow from the stairwell lit the space, casting long shadows across the walls.
"Hmm. No line at the bathroom either But yeah, it is a little spooky up here." Katy ran her hands along the edge of the wall at the top of the stairs until she found the hall light and flipped it on. They both squinted in reaction.
"Where the hell is Gwen?"
Katy tilted her chin towards the bathroom. "Doors shut. She must be inside. Ill check the room for my purse. You wanna wait for her to come out or look in the room with me?"
Audrey grinned, catching the hopeful note of Katys question. "And walk in just in time to see some greasy guys really hairy naked butt?" She blanched. "No thanks. Ill leave that to you. Just make sure that you dont get so interested in whats happening that you decide to join in and leave me here in the hall waiting."
Katys blue eyes narrowed. "That was cold, Audrey."
"Yeah," Audrey laughed, completely unrepentant. "It really was." She made a shooing motion with her hands. "Go on."
Katy stood outside the door, drawing in deep breaths and fortifying herself
before she loudly rapped on the door. "Im coming in to get my purse."
She covered her eyes with one hand. "If youre naked, crawl under the
covers, for Gods sake!" She cocked her head to the side. "Unless
youre really gorgeous. Then speak up and I wont cover my eyes."
Audrey chuckled as Katy entered the room, her chuckle turning to an outright laugh when she heard Katy bump into something and let out a virulent string of curses. She turned and knocked on the bathroom door. "Gwen? Are you there? Youre not sick, are you?"
There was no answer.
Audreys forehead creased. "Gwen? Hello?" she called again, this time more loudly.
When her second effort was met with silence, she gingerly got down on one knee and looked under the crack beneath the door, seeing only darkness. "Huh. Guess Malcolm was wrong," she muttered under her breath, groaning tiredly as she pushed to her feet.
Audrey took a step to leave but was still curious. Something felt she didnt know what. Wrong, maybe. Malcolm was engrossed in his game, but he didnt seem at all ambivalent about where Gwen was. Giving in to her curiosity, she tried the door handle, praying that it wouldnt be sticky like it was the last time shed been in that bathroom. In contrast to the stifling heat of the house it felt cool in her hand and a slight turn confirmed that it was unlocked. Tentatively, she opened the door a few inches.
"Gwen?" There was still nothing. Audrey rolled her eyes at herself and began to close the door, only to pause when she thought she heard a whimper. When she pushed the door open a little further, what she saw caused the bottom of her stomach to hit her knees.
"Shut the door!" Gwen moaned from her spot on the floor between the
toilet and the wall. "Shut it!"
Audrey blinked, momentarily frozen.
The rawness of that familiar voice snapped Audrey out of her momentary paralysis.
She reached for the light. "Gwen?"
"Dont turn that on," Gwen begged. "Please."
Audreys hand dropped from the switch and she rushed inside, her heart in throat. "Are you hurt?" She glanced around quickly, trying to figure out what could have happened. "Gwen, tell me what happened."
The taller girl began to sob, her face pressed tightly against her arms.
Audrey reached for her, only to have Gwen shrink back. Her entire body was shaking.
"Are you hurt?" Audrey asked again, this time more firmly. "Tell me, Gwen! I need to know if youre hurt."
"I-I-I" Gwen buried her face again, nodding wildly.
"Did you fall?" Audrey cursed herself for leaving Gwen at the party after shed had so much to drink.
Gwen swallowed hard. She opened her mouth to tell Audrey what had happened, but no words came out. Instead, she began to cry harder.
Just then Katy came to the door. "Whats up?" Automatically, she flipped on the lights. "I found my Jesus!" she blurted when she saw Gwen. Her mouth dropped open in horror.
The redheads hair was disheveled and her face was bloodied from a gash on her forehead. Her cheeks were already sporting bruises in the shape of fingers, and shed smeared blood down the sleeves of her blouse as shed cried, leaving a series of startling scarlet imprints on the crisp, white cotton. Her pants were still down around her ankles and she was clutching a dirty towel between her legs. The towel was bloody, too.
"Oh, Gwen," Audrey said softly, closing her eyes.
Teary eyes lifted to meet Katys, and Katy dropped to her knees next to Gwen.
"Gwen," Audrey said quietly, furious when she realized that her friend couldnt hear her unless she raised her voice. She swallowed around a solid lump that had formed in her throat. "Youre hurt. You need to go to the hospital." She reached out to gently graze a purple cheek, her heart hurting when Gwen flinched before she even touched her.
Katys hands balled into trembling fists. She wanted to murder whoever had done this. "We need to call the police," she ground out briskly.
"No!" Gwen shouted through her tears. Forcefully she tugged at her own hair as her mind raced. "You cant tell anyone. Not the police." Then her eyes grew round as saucers and she began to panic. "And especially not Malcolm!"
"Shh Cmere." Audrey pulled her into a gentle hug, heedless of the blood on Gwen.
For a second, Gwen struggled. Then she let go of the towel and sank into Audreys embrace, clinging to her desperately, her shoulders shaking as she cried silently.
Katy leaned forward and smoothed back a shock of messy red hair to place a gentle kiss on Gwens head, her own tears dampening the pale skin. "Someone raped you?" From the state Gwen was in and the towel between her legs, she already knew the answer, but she had to be sure. Her chest clenched when Gwen weakly nodded. "Audrey is right. You need a doctor."
"No!" Roughly, Gwen pulled away from Audrey, fitting herself back between the toilet and the wall. She cried out when shooting pains shot through her arm as she lifted it to wipe her cheeks. "No one can know, Katy." Her eyes sparked. "I mean it."
Fearfully, Gwens face snapped upward when she saw a shadowy figure in the hallway.
Katy looked over her shoulder and kicked the door shut with her foot.
"Hey!" an unidentified female voice yelled through the door.
"Go the fuck away," Katy barked.
Gwen jumped and Audrey shot Katy a warning glare.
Instantly contrite, she muttered, "Sorry."
Audreys insides were quaking with a combination of grief and fury. "Who did this?" She grabbed a wad of toilet paper and tenderly wiped at Gwens forehead. It was bleeding sluggishly. "I hate to ask this, Gwen. But was it Malcolm?"
"No!" Gwen shrieked, wide-eyed and horrified. "He would never! Never."
"Okay," Katy soothed. "We believe you."
But Gwen continued as though she hadnt heard her friend. "I couldnt see much. A man pushed me down. He came up behind me. It was dark. It wasnt Malcolm. He was too short." She swallowed and more tears streaked her cheeks. "I didnt do anything! This isnt my fault!"
Katy and Audrey both blinked. "We didnt"
"I was just coming to use the bathroom," Gwen moaned, slapping the floor with both hands, furious because at herself for allowing this to happen.
Audrey took Gwens hand and rubbed the back of it with her thumb. "Of
course you were, Gwen. This wasnt your fault," she insisted gently.
"We know that." She turned to her cousin, who was visibly trying not
to burst into tears. "Right, Katy?"
"Hell yes, we do. Its the bastard that did this whos to blame."
"We need to call the police," Katy said tightly. "This had to have happened only a few minutes ago. He could still be in the house."
"I wont talk to them," Gwen said stubbornly, lifting her blood-smeared chin. "You cant make me."
Gwens eyes pleaded with Katy, breaking her heart and filling her with uncertainty.
"I think your forehead needs stitches," Audrey announced, taking the focus off of the police for a moment.
Gwen reached for her forehead wearily. Then let her hand drop. "Itll be fine."
"If you leave it like this, I think itll scar," Audrey reminded her.
Gwen was silent, but she visibly recoiled at the thought. "You really think so?"
"I really do."
Gwen swallowed and closed her eyes, shaking her head "no." "Dont be mad at me." She began to cry again. "I just cant. Not now." She sniffed a few times. "Maybe tomorrow."
Audrey and Katy exchanged resigned looks, acknowledging that this was as much as Gwen was capable of at the moment.
Gwen wiped her chin with trembling fingers, the taste of blood in her mouth still making her feel like vomiting. "I dont want Malcolm to see me like this. I just want to go home."
Katys gazed softened. "But Gwen"
"Are you going to help me or not?" Gwen snapped, desperate tear-filled eyes glistening in the harsh bathroom light.
Audrey grabbed hold of Katys arm, but addressed Gwen. "Were going to help you. Can you stand?"
Gwens body instantly relaxed. "Thank you," she whispered. "I-I-I think I can stand."
Katy nearly bit her tongue through, every cell in her body on the very verge of protesting again when she let out a slow breath and hung her head in defeat. "Ill make sure Malcolm is busy while you two go out through the kitchen door. Ill meet you in the car."
"No!" Gwen shrieked. "You cant go alone." Her eyes strayed to the closed door. "Its not safe."
Katy stroked Gwens hair. "Well all three stay together until we reach the bottom of the stairs. There are still plenty of people downstairs. Ill be fine there."
"Okay," Gwen conceded reluctantly. "If we stay together."
"Gwen?" Audrey said, causing her friends heads to turn. Her voice cracked as she spoke. "Im so sorry this happened."
"Me, too," Katy groaned, covering her face with her hands.
Gwen gazed vacantly at the door and nodded slowly. She felt dirty and sick and a big part of her wanted to curl up in the corner and die. She let out a soft sigh, trying not to think about Malcolm and her parents or the man whod taken more from her than she could fathom. "Me too."
Late Fall 1982 (Seven Weeks Later)
St. Louis, Missouri
The young women of the Mayflower Club were clustered in their pajamas on Gwens twin bed, gathered there for a special announcement. A small lamp lit the corner of the room along with a hefty dose of starlight that shown in the bedroom window, closed tonight in deference to the cool breeze. Rain pitter-patted against the window, and a fitful breeze rustled the piles of moist leaves and slapped barren branches against the homes worn siding.
For the first time since the night of the party earlier that autumn, Gwen was smiling.
Nina let out a breath in pure relief. Shed been ready for the worst when Gwen insisted on making her visit to Planned Parenthood alone that afternoon. Shed missed her period after the rape, sending the entire house into a state of anxious worry. But this had to be good news.
Gwen drew in a deep breath, smiling when Jacie took one of her hands and squeezed it affectionately. She squeezed back. "Malcolm has asked me to marry him," she announced.
Three mouths dropped open.
"He he has?" Jacie finally said, filling the awkward silence that had suddenly overtaken the room. She cleared her throat when she realized how she sounded. "I mean, he has?" she said more normally.
Beaming, Gwen nodded. She shrugged one shoulder as her cheeks tinted. "He loves me."
An enormous grin bloomed on Jacies face while Audrey, Nina, and Katy smothered Gwen in a group bear hug. "Hes a great guy," Jacie said honestly, her admiration showing.
"So things went okay at the clinic today?" Audrey asked, just to be sure. The girls were beside themselves all afternoon, regretting that theyd allowed Gwens stubbornness to win out when she announced she intended on going to the doctor alone.
Gwens smile faltered, but only for a second. Then she nodded. "Things worked out for the best. I really believe that."
Nina frowned and pulled one of her knees against her chest, her socked foot resting flat on the flowered bedspread. She cocked her head to one side. "That means youre not pregnant, right?"
Gwen licked her lips. "No." She swallowed hard at Audreys gasp. "I I am pregnant."
"Jesus," Katy muttered while Jacie sat in shocked silence, her tongue refusing to work at all.
"Are ?" Nina didnt really know what to say and a quick glance at her friends revealed that they were all in the same shocked boat. "Are you okay?"
Gwens chin trembled, and for the first time all day her brave veneer began to crack. Then her expression turned bitter and she snorted. "Mentally or physically?" She raised her eyebrows as she waited for an answer.
"Gwen." Jacie pulled her into a hug and pressed her lips to Gwens ear. "Im so sorry." She wished again and again that Gwen had left that godforsaken party with her and Nina that night. Or that she had stuck with Gwen or done anything different that would have triggered a change in the course of events that had shattered her friend.
Gwen wiped angrily at her eyes, not wanting to cry anymore. Shed done little else for weeks, but now now things were finally getting better. Gently, she disentangled herself from Jacie, feeling several warm pats of encouragement as her other friends moved in to support her. "Im okay." With effort, she was able to smile again. "Im going to have a baby and marry someone I love." Cautiously, she searched their faces. "It doesnt get much better than that, right?"
Katy looked away, unwilling to answer that question honestly. Jacie and Audrey suddenly found something very interesting about Gwens bedspread.
"If you say so, Gwen," Nina said weakly, still not believing what she was hearing.
"Malcolms a helluva guy," Jacie suddenly inserted, doing her best to be positive in the light of news she couldnt help but view as horrible. "Being willing to bring this baby into his family. I can see why you love him so much."
Most of the color drained from Gwens face.
Audrey blinked slowly as realization dawned, the weight of it leaving her knees rubbery and her chest heavy. "Oh, my God, Gwen." She turned to look into watery eyes. "You didnt tell him what happened."
Katy sprung off the bed. "Holy shit!" she whispered into her hands. "What have you done!" She shook her head, refusing to look at Gwen when she said, "You suck."
Nina pinned Gwen with an intense stare. "No way, Gwen." She shook her head gravely. This was going too far. "Tell us that Malcolm doesnt think hes the father."
"He loves me!" Gwen defended hotly, refusing to answer Ninas question, and grabbing her pillow and clutching it to her chest.
"No. No. No. This is impossible," Jacie said, her forehead deeply
creased, her hands gesturing wildly. "You havent even slept with Malcolm.
Youve told us a million times that you were waiting until you married the
perfect guy. He cant think the baby is his." She stopped when Gwens
cheeks turned bright red and she buried her face in the pillow.
A light bulb went on in Audreys head. Gwen was smart and desperate, a very dangerous combination. "You slept with him after you missed your period so hed think the baby was his." It wasnt a question.
Gwen nodded miserably, still refusing to look up from her pillow. She couldnt bear the thought of what her friends had to think of her now, but worse than that was the possibility of losing Malcolm. Her stomach twisted. "I had no choice," she said harshly, tears dampening the pillow. "None of you understand." Her fingers clutched convulsively at the soft cotton. "He took me to meet his mother last week."
Nina nodded. They all knew that. "You said it went okay."
"Yeah, it was okay. Except that she barely spoke to me!" Gwen wailed, her face crumpling. "She asked me what my parents did for a living and all about my family."
"So?" Jacie asked, more sharply than she intended. "You dont have anything to hide, Gwen."
The redheads face snapped up. "So?" Her cheeks turned beet red. "The Langtrees are one of the richest and most respected families in Missouri."
Jacie rolled her eyes, having heard that statement from Gwen a dozen times in the past couple of months. "That doesnt make them better than any of us."
"They care," Gwen continued, "that my mother is a housewife who didnt graduate from high school and that Daddy sells insurance for a living! They care that I am from Hazelwood and sound like a Missouri hick!" She snarled, "No matter how I tried, I could see the disapproval in her eyes. She thinks Im nothing but white trash!" She blinked away more tears. "And compared to the Langtrees, I am."
"Bullshit," Jacie said flatly, losing patience quickly with Gwens class conscious attitude that had been there since they were little girls. "Thats your mother and her delusions of grandeur talking." She pointed at Gwen and then the other girls. "You and all the rest of us come from regular working class families. You are hardly white trash."
"Grow up, Jacie. Do you actually think his family would let him marry me, no matter how much we loved each other, if they knew I was carrying a rapists child!" Gwen screamed, on the verge of becoming hysterical. "Do you?"
Jacie gritted her teeth. As sickening as it was, she couldnt deny that Gwen was probably right about that. "I"
"Jacie," Nina placed a calming hand on Jacies shoulder as Katy made her way back to the bed. "This isnt helping." Her eyes begged her to bring things down a notch, and she smiled softly when Jacie nodded.
Audrey and Katy exchanged helpless glances.
"You dont have to do this," Jacie said to Gwen, intentionally gentling her voice. Then she said what the other girls were feeling, but too chicken to express. "Tricking Malcolm isnt right."
Gwen pulled her hand away as though it had been burned. "What are you talking about?" Her eyes were wide with disbelief. "You still dont understand? This is the best day of my life! Malcolm loves me. This baby could have just as easily have been his. It was only horrible, horrible luck that that bastard did this to me first!"
Nina ran a hand through her hair, shaking her head. "But the baby is not his. You know that for a fact."
Gwens eyes widened. "Dont say that again."
"Gwen," Jacie repeated, "well help you with the baby.
You dont have to trick anyone." She glanced around at her friends,
who all nodded eagerly. "We discussed it today while you were at the clinic.
Well all help and take turns watching it and help with money, too."
"We can do it," Nina swore to her. "Between us all, including Katy who thinks babies are nothing but poop machines but who offered to help anyway," this drew a weak smile from Katy, "we can make it work. You dont have to get married or even move back home."
Gwen looked at Nina as though shed never seen her before. "But I want to marry Malcolm."
Audrey valiantly picked up the ball. "I know you do, honey. But not this way."
"Wont it be hard finishing school if youre married?" Katy tried. "You could just be engaged through college and we could"
Gwen shook her head. "Were having the wedding during winter break." Unconsciously her hand drifted to her stomach. "Before Ill be showing much. And Malcolm says his mother will likely insist that I drop out of school even before the baby." She drew in a ragged breath and gazed at the window, not seeing the twinkling stars looking back at her. "At least thats what happened when his cousin got into a similar mess last winter."
"Who gives a shit what his mommy says!" Jacie exploded, seeing Gwens entire future being shaped by other people. People who didnt care about her. "You want a degree. You can still have that."
Gwens pale gaze sharpened. "I want Malcolm more," she said firmly, her face hard.
"And this baby," Nina prompted gently, knowing full well that she was treading on intensely sensitive and personal ground, even between the closest of friends. "Do you want it, Gwen? Theres nothing that says you have to raise it or even have it." Her expression softened, and she felt tears well up in her eyes. A lump formed in her throat, but she spoke anyway. "Under the circumstances, no one could blame you if"
"I could never do that, Nina," Gwen admitted quietly. "Ive
been thinking about it for days
" She lifted one hand and let it drop
lifelessly. "I just cant."
Nina nodded, quite sure that it was something she could do under the right circumstances, but understanding that this was a personal decision that only Gwen could make for herself.
Katy sighed. "Gwen, maybe you could tell Malcolm the truth but then keep
it from his family?"
Audrey, Nina, and Jacie all nodded at once, latching on to Katys idea with gusto.
Gwen sniffed. "Its too late." She pulled her pillow closer, protecting herself from the world. "I wasnt going to, but it just came out." Her eyes fluttered shut. "Ive already lied to him. Theres no going back now. He might believe what his mother probably already thinks. That Im just a gold-digger."
"Its not too late yet," Jacie insisted. "Its like I said before; hes a good guy, Gwen. He wont blame you or the baby for what happened. It wasnt your fault," she emphasized again and received a trembling smile for her words. "Hes been worried sick over you these past weeks. He does love you."
Gwen had explained away her injuries by saying shed been in a car accident.
Malcolm had sent flowers, cards, and called twice a day during the days immediately
following the rape when Gwen was still in pieces and refusing to see anyone or
even leave her room. "Trust him," Jacie urged, shifting closer to Nina,
wanting to feel her presence.
"I do trust him." Gwen squared her shoulders. "But right now I have to trust myself more. Please," her last word broke. "Please understand, Jacie. This doesnt have to be a bad thing. Malcolm and I love each other and want to be together. Things are just happening sooner than they would have anyway."
Of all the girls, it was Jacies understanding Gwen wanted most. In the nights since the party Jacie had tirelessly calmed her when terrifying dreams ripped her cruelly from an already fitful sleep. And though thered always been a tiny antagonistic edge to their relationship, Jacies comforting arms would wrap around her each night, making her feel safe and warm until she could find sleep again.
Jacies lips thinned and once again she felt the loving pressure of Ninas hand, reassuring her. "I do understand, Gwen," she finally said. "I think youre wrong and I wish youd reconsider leaving school and " Everything was just happening so fast. She swallowed and forced herself forward half-heartedly, knowing her friend needed from her more than logic or reason. She allowed her dark, confident stare to meet Gwens. "But I do understand."
Gwen let out a sob. "Thank you." She turned her eyes to the other girls, not surprised to see wet cheeks. "You too?" she asked fearfully. "Please?"
Nina tugged a throw blanket up from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around Gwens shoulders. Then she surprised her by kissing her on the cheek.
Gwen felt warm breath against her skin.
"We love you forever, Gwen," Nina murmured against the salty, moist cheek. "You know that."
"Forever," Katy and Audrey agreed solemnly.
"Ill never tell another soul about this, and most importantly Malcolm can never know," Gwen reminded them all, hating herself for the lie but not seeing any other way out for herself, Malcolm, and the baby. This is our chance to be happy. We have to take it.
"Never," the girls agreed, grasping hands in a gesture that, for them, was as old as time.
Rural St. Louis.
Gwen pulled herself from the past and read over the latest blackmail email that shed received weeks before. She'd brought it to Charlottes Web to confront her blackmailer with it. The words sickened her. "Never" had turned out to be 21 years.
Tucker isnt Malcolms son. You lied.
You know it, and so do I. And if you dont pay
so will your family and friends.
Gwen carefully stowed the note back in the file in her suitcase. Then she lifted her chin and left her room in search of the other women and some answers.
Time was running out.
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