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Chapter One: Rent
Victory Crenshaw cannot stop chewing her fingernails. Well, the skin around them at this point. She’s only been in college for one semester and already she’s on the brink of them showing her the door.
Her math is correct, though. All fourteen times she scribbled the numbers across her notebook, it said she had to choose. On one hand, she couldn’t become a school teacher without college. On the other, she enjoys living in a house and eating food.
Sighing, she takes her hair down out of its high ponytail and shakes it out. Her scalp aches from the tight band and several blonde strands break free in her hands. She shakes them off before reaching for her laptop.
Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, Apartment Finder… Post, post, post. Moving into the dorms is too expensive. She knows they cover food and utilities and all that, but it’s just more expensive than her apartment.
Her stomach growls and she thinks about the cartons of ramen in the kitchen. Ramen is fine. She doesn’t need to pay hundreds of dollars more a month for vegetables and meats. As for utilities, government assistance discounts those pretty well for her.
They told her she makes too much at her job in the library to qualify for food assistance. It makes no sense to her, but at least they’re helping her with the electric.
But the rent. If she cannot find a roommate, she will have to find a room for herself. And break her lease. Then she can forget about living on her own for the next few years. Every apartment application she submits will be rejected, for sure.
She groans, tearing at her hair. She’s sent this out every day, twice a day, for a week now! Every time someone calls, despite her clear disclosure in the ad, they have a pet they want to bring.
Mr. Gibbons, the landlord, makes rounds every morning. He walks up and down the sidewalk in front of the apartments. If he sees a blind move, he’ll stop for several minutes and wait for a cat or a dog to make itself known.
Once, Victory was watching a movie during Mr. Gibbons’ rounds. As soon as the dog barked on the screen, Mr. Gibbons gave her a heart attack with how loud he knocked! She invited him in to inspect her apartment, though he would never demand that. There are laws in place, after all. Still, she wanted to maintain a good relationship with him.
Every time she gets a new call about her ad, she has to remind herself of Mr. Gibbons’ fury that morning. He would be more lenient about someone moving in with her than anything with four legs.
The sound her stomach makes is so pronounced, it’s like a bad special effect. She gets up, debating between chicken and teriyaki, when her phone rings. The number on her four-year-old Samsung isn’t familiar. It’s about the room, she’s sure, but chances are they have a pet.
Jogging downstairs to the kitchen, she answers. “Hello?”
“Is this Victory?” asks a deep voice.
“This is she. How may I help you?” Grabbing the chicken ramen, she tears open the noisy packaging.
“I’m calling about the room you listed for rent,” he explains, the same as all the others. “Is it still available?”
“Yes, it is. Do you have any pets?” She tosses the block of noodles into the bowl she used this morning and fills it with water.
“No, I have no pets,” he says. Victory freezes, her bowl overflowing in the sink.
“Oh! Oh, that’s great,” she stammers, shutting off the water and heading back to her room. “Do you have the full rent? Are you working?”
“I have first and last month’s rent. I am a full time student, so I am not currently employed,” he admits, wary.
Victory had almost reached the top of the stairs, ready to take down his information. Now she halts and furrows her brow. Even if he can’t pay the rent after two months, it will be more than enough. She was not expecting a deposit. This will get her through next semester and then she can look for a new roommate, if necessary.
“Is that a problem?” he prompts. “Because I assure you, I will not be late on rent at any point.”
“No, no, it’s no problem,” she lies, shuffling into her bedroom. Sinking back into her desk chair, she adds, “Out of curiosity, though, how do you expect to pay rent without an income?”
“I have a savings,” he explains, curt.
The guy probably deals drugs.
Screw it. She’s desperate. “Alright, then. What’s your name? When would you like to see the apartment?”
Clay Mitchell surveys Victory’s kitchen with less disapproval than her living room. The man is in his early twenties, broad-shouldered, and keeps his short beard trimmed. His gray eyes mirror the frosted tips of his spiky brown hair. The volume of hair gel this man must use…
The hair is quite a contrast to his dress suit. It’s hot out today, so he must have left the jacket in his car.
“You can bring your own furniture, if you like. I never use the downstairs unless I need to cook,” she says. Clay spoke five words in total since he entered her home. Fearing that he may be reconsidering the room, she continues, “You’d basically have free reign down here.”
The only room she furnished when she moved in was her bedroom. That’s where she sleeps, studies, watches TV, reads books – everything. It even has a half-bath, so she doesn’t need to leave unless she’s bathing or microwaving.
Clay nods, crossing his arms. The blue fabric of his sleeves pull tight, straining to accommodate his upper arms. The sight makes her skin crawl, her insides squirm with anxiety. Letting a man move in is dangerous, she knows that, but what choice does she have?
Besides, she lives in an apartment complex. There are plenty of people here that could help her if anything went wrong.
If they can get to her in time.
Victory clears her throat. “Your room is upstairs, if you’d still like to see it.”
Clay goes in front of her at her request. She doesn’t like the idea of him being in the position to trap her in the stairwell. “No, not that one. This is my room,” she says, reminding herself to buy a padlock. “Here you are.” She opens the spare bedroom.
Inside, Clay examines the closet, then revolves in place at the center with an expression of deep concentration. With a grimace, he moves to the window and looks down at the street.
“Hey!” he says, so loud that Victory jumps. Whirling on her, he points out the window. “Is that a police station across the street?”
“Um, yes?” She lifts her foot, preparing to take a step back. “It’s a very safe neighborhood. There’s a neighborhood watch, too.” There is, but Victory has never seen them. Odds are, the signs are an empty threat to dissuade would-be criminals.
Clay grins, revealing teeth too bright to be natural. Two addictions so far: Hair gel and whitening strips. “I’ll take it! Is a personal check alright?”
Victory nods. This is it. She’s living with a man.
Taking a deep breath, she leads him downstairs to the kitchen counter to sign paperwork. The paperwork is only a sheet of lined paper that says he would move out if he is a week late on rent. It also states the cost of rent, but that is really all there is to it.
So why does Clay bend over the paper, pen hovering over the crooked signature line, as though she handed him a Faustian deal?
“Is something the matter?” she murmurs.
Letting out a dissatisfied sigh, he draws himself upright and frowns at her. “This is going to sound weird and arrogant, but, uh,” he says, rubbing his neck. Victory is on guard at once. “I’m not looking for a relationship or anything like that. I’d rather we didn’t talk unless it’s about rent.”
“Oh, says Victory, the words slow to process in her mind. “Oh! Don’t worry about that! I don’t like guys!” she blurts out, giddy with relief.
“You’re gay? That’s perfect!” he laughs, bending back over the paper.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything offensive. I’m not one of those creepy dudes who fetishize – ”
“Oh-kay!” she interrupts, holding up her hands. Talking about fetishes with an attractive guy is so far above her boundary line, it has frequent flyer miles. And she meant that guys make her uncomfortable, not that she preferred women!
“Shit, my bad! Look, I got FIMS. You can’t hold it against me,” he pleads, tilting his head to the side. His gray eyes twinkle, daring her to ask. When she doesn’t, too preoccupied with how to tell him she’s not gay, he says, “Foot-In-Mouth Syndrome. It’s genetic. Pray my father never visits. Do you allow visitors?” He touches the pen to his chin, waiting for her answer.
“Yeah, friends and family are fine. No parties, please,” she mutters, still in a daze. After an entire tour with zero conversation, she never expected him to become so friendly.
“No worries. I’ll be out most of the time,” he dismisses with a wave. He signs the paper, handing it back to her. “You know, I almost didn’t even come see this place when I saw you were a woman. Long story, but trust me. There is no way I’m going domestic with a girl – a straight girl, I mean.”
Victory starts to explain, but then looks down at the makeshift lease. There’s a check paper-clipped to the top. Who carries paper clips with them like that? The number on the check tells her it’s only a white lie. “Yeah, I imagine that could get messy,” she agrees.
After Clay leaves, informing her that he will begin moving in this weekend, Victory scoffs. So now she’s gay.
But also not kicked out of college. Or into the streets.
She shrugs, smiling to herself. “Yay, boobs?”