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TRIGGER WARNING: Brief mentions of abuse.
Chapter Two: Roxy
“Clay Mitchell?” repeats Michael, his hazel eyes round with disbelief. He wipes perspiration from his mahogany forehead, averting his gaze with a heavy sigh.
“What?” asks Victory, furrowing her brow.
“Nothing.” His voice tilts up at the end in a most unconvincing way. “C’mon, I haven’t had breakfast and I have a carb window.” Flashing her a smile, his teeth brilliant against his dark skin, he starts back up the sidewalk.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Victory lunges, gripping him by the elbow.
Tilting his head back in defeat, Michael groans. “Just forget I said anything, okay? It’s not like it matters with you anyway,” he whines, dropping his head to give her a pleading look. Victory is 5’6”, but Michael is a few inches over six feet so he always makes her feel short.
Which she’s sure undermines her intimidating scowl. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Michael’s features flatten, eyes deadening with resignation. “Do we really have to do this in ninety degree heat? Can’t we fight in the cafeteria, where the air-conditioning lives?”
“Is it the sex thing?” accuses Victory, sounding more confident than she feels. Last month, she confided in Michael that she disliked the idea of sex. His jaw hit the floor. Now it feels like he sees her as some alien lifeform or something.
“Yeah, but this time, your weirdo chastity vow is a good thing,” says Michael. He gives her an apologetic smile, resting his hand on her shoulder. “This guy is a heartbreaker.”
Victory raises an eyebrow. “Like a playboy?”
He rolls his head back and forth. “Kinda? He doesn’t sleep around a lot.” At Victory’s perplexed look, he sighs. “He’ll sleep with the same lady for months. Then he’ll turn around and start with someone else.”
“Oh, so he’s a cheater. Gross,” mutters Victory, reconsidering her new roommate. But his personal life isn’t going to affect her much. And if she cancels the agreement, she’s back where she started with her money problems.
“Well, he doesn’t ‘officially’ date them, so I guess it’s not cheating. He doesn’t make a secret out of it or anything. Everyone knows he’s not exclusive,” continues Michael, now frowning at a place over her head. Trying to explain Clay to her creates a deep fold between his perfect eyebrows. “I guess I just don’t like it.”
“That’s because you have a conscience,” scoffs Victory, crossing her arms. “Who wouldn’t expect more after spending months and months with someone?”
Michael nods, his expression morphing into pity. “Exactly. I’ve been Captain Save-A-Hoe one too many times at frat parties when it finally sinks in with these chicks. I just…well…” He grimaces at her. “I can’t fight, okay? So if you got mixed up with him like that and he made you cry…”
Victory thinks for a moment, then smiles. “So you were just worried about me, then.”
Michael reaches forward and moves a strand of her hair out of her face. With a sweet smile, he explains, “I don’t have health insurance. I break a bone, my credit is shot.”
Batting his hand away, she sticks her tongue out at him. “Bull.”
“Believe what you want,” he breezes, beginning to walk away.
“You’re a big softie!” she says, her voice sing-song. At his over-the-shoulder glare, she starts in with a little dance. “You’re a biiiig softiiie!”
He turns to appraise her, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re acting like a child, you know that? All the upperclassmen are going to tease you.”
“Admit it!” she orders, mischievous. Raising her hands, she wiggles her fingers, going for his tummy.
Her friend starts laughing before she can even touch him. Ever since she learned how ticklish he was, Victory never lost an argument.
“Okay, okay!” Backing away a step, he says, “I guess I do worry. But only because someday, the world’s going to need a virgin to throw in a volcano.”
“Whatever. You love me.” The grin on her face is so wide, it hurts her face. She’s only known Michael Barnett for one semester, but she’s so grateful that he became her first friend. Well, her only friend at the moment, to be honest.
And he’s as gay as Cats on Broadway, so she feels quite at home throwing her arms around him now in a tight hug. “You reign, you know that?” she tells him, rubbing her face on his shirt like a cat.
“Ugh, gross! Knock it off. Our sweat is mixing. You are the weirdest person I have ever met,” he prattles, his tone both disturbed and affectionate. He peels her off of him. “Alright, bestie bonding time is over. Can we please go inside? I’m freaking melting out here!”
On the way to the cafeteria, he laments that his shirt is ruined thanks to her delaying him. He points at the nonexistent dark patches under his arms, making Victory roll her eyes at his theatrics.
As soon as the cool air touches their skin, Michael runs his palm across the side of his head, the side that reads: YES. “Finally! And you don’t get to berate me for cheating on my diet. I’m scarfing down no less than three ice creams.”
Victory shakes her head, following him to the buffet. Michael cut three years of dreadlocks off his head a few weeks ago for a most noble cause: Comedy. The barber shaved ‘YES’ on one side of his head and ‘NO’ on the other. Michael said it would be funny when he shook his head at someone, since he usually flakes on social plans. (“Are you doing anything this weekend?” Yes, no, yes, no, yes – )
Ever since he got the new haircut, nobody has asked him that question. Victory has heard nothing but complaints for three straight weeks. (“I had to have gotten that question at least every Friday before the ‘do! Did you tell someone?” he’d accuse.)
Michael piles his tray to capacity with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream, then plops a salad down beside it. Grimacing at Victory, he returns the chocolate and vanilla ice cream. “I have a shoot tomorrow. Too much dairy will make me all puffy.”
As they leave the line, heading toward their usual spot toward the exits, a woman bounds in their direction. “Michael?” she squeals.
Her red-lined mouth stretches across her face in a wide grin. Thick, auburn waves bounce past her bare shoulders, framing a porcelain face.
“Shit,” mutters Michael, his expression darkening.
Before Victory can ask, the excitable woman is upon them. She almost knocks Michael’s tray out of his hands in her eagerness to throw her arms around him.
“Hey, Roxy,” says Michael, balancing his tray on one hand off to the side. His wide smile and return hug appears sincere. His earlier displeasure at seeing her is gone and Victory isn’t sure what to make of it.
The woman could have stepped right off the front page of a magazine, complete with designer dress. It’s a deep wine color that comes up to her mid-thigh. Her legs are airbrush personified, like the gods blessed her with some lucky genetic defect. How else could they be so smooth and unblemished? The dress’ neckline plunges down the center of her breasts which, despite their modest size, are impossible to ignore.
Maybe Victory is gay. It would explain a lot. And it’s not like it’s the first time she questioned her sexuality.
“Oh, I missed you!” exclaims Roxy. When she pulls away from Michael, she appraises Victory. “Who’s your friend?”
“Victory Crenshaw,” she says, feeling shy all of a sudden. Roxy’s bold, black eyeliner and heavy faux lashes give her bright green eyes a predatory quality. She’s taller than Victory, maybe 5’7” or 5’8”, and all of this intimidates her on some small level.
Then again, Roxy’s wearing a pair of three-inch stilettos. Maybe she’s closer to Victory’s height than she appears.
But stilettos at school? Seriously, is Project Runway doing auditions ay Western U today or something?
“First year?” she chirps, her friendly tone chasing away Victory’s reservations.
“That obvious, huh?” she laughs, glancing up to Michael. “If it wasn’t for this guy, I’d be a total shut-in by now.”
Roxy gives Micheal an affectionate smile. “Yes, he has a way of bringing people out of their shells, doesn’t he?”
Clearing his throat, Michael asks, “So, you’re back? Where you staying now?”
Playing with the ends of her hair, she glances across the cafeteria. “Yeah, I’ve hid long enough,” she laughs. “Ben isn’t here anymore, so I’m staying in the dorms. How’s Clay doing?”
“He’s good,” he deadpans, searching the cafeteria.
Roxy furrows her eyebrows at him. “That’s it? Just good?” she presses.
“Am I your friend or your private detective? All you ever want is more info on your ex,” tosses Michael, rubbing his forehead. “Can’t we talk about the homecoming frat party or something?”
“Clay Mitchell?” asks Victory, darting Michael a questioning look. She raises her eyebrows at Roxy. “You dated him?”
“You know him?” asks Roxy. Those green eyes are like lasers, a threatening and precise weapon.
“Roxy, chill. She’s gay,” says Michael, earning an indignant squeak from Victory.
He tilts his head to the side, lifting one eyebrow. (“This is easier. Just go with it.”)
Pursing her lips, Victory shifts her feet. (“I’m going to murder you in cold blood.”) Seriously, she only told him that part of the story so he wouldn’t give it away when he came over. She feels awful about deceiving Clay, though. She’s decided and undecided to tell him the truth countless times already.
“Is that true?” asks Roxy.
The beautiful bombshell scrutinizes her. The woman won’t break eye contact, a bewildering determination in her gaze.
Maybe the lie is easier, after all. “Yeah, but, um…” Why is Victory even upset about this? A rumor about her being gay would probably deter men’s advances. Still, a part of her wants to overcome her ingrained stigma and have a healthy relationship. She might not be able to do it this year or even the next, but before college is over, maybe…? “Just don’t go spreading it around, if you don’t mind?” she almost whispers, ashamed to perpetuate the lie.
Like flipping a switch, Roxy’s fierce expression melts into her usual warmth. “Oh, you’re still in the closet? No worries at all! Mum’s the word!” Then she takes out a pen from a clutch Victory missed earlier. Grasping Victory’s wrist with pillow soft fingers, nails painted a deep red, she starts writing on Victory’s palm. “I came out freshman year. I’m bi. If you ever want to talk, just shoot me a text.”
Victory has been gay for less than twenty-four hours and has already snagged a phone number. Apparently, she has game.
“Well!” says Roxy, capping the pen and replacing it to her clutch. “It’s a good thing you aren’t involved with Clay. Love him to death, but that man keeps some pretty dangerous company. Last year – ”
“Roxy,” warns Michael, his voice an uncharacteristic baritone.
“What? I said ‘love him to death,’ didn’t I?” Her hands fly to her chest and she tucks in her chin, chastised. The motion wafts her flowery perfume into Victory’s face and she smiles. The scent is so clean and light, it reminds her of her favorite park in springtime. “I’m not saying anything bad about Clay. He’s actually a really great guy, Victory. But you know what Ben did, Michael. You can’t expect me not to warn an impressionable freshman about it, especially if she’s spending time with him.”
“Well, she’s not hanging out with Ben, so it doesn’t matter,” clips Michael, his expression stony. His back is ramrod straight, as though trying to make himself appear larger. Since when did the cafeteria become an episode of Animal Planet?
Victory glances between the two of them, nervous. “Michael – ”
“Don’t worry about it, Vic,” interrupts Michael, now glaring at Roxy.
In a whisper, Victory hisses, “But I told him he could bring friends over to the apartment.”
Now Michael snaps his hazel eyes on Victory’s blue ones with total horror.
“Don’t,” says Roxy and Michael in unison.
Victory feels heat rising up her neck, embarrassed to suddenly be the focus of the conversation. They both watch her with intense concern. You’d think she admitted to petting rabid animals for the adrenaline rush or something.
“Victory, listen to me, okay?” Roxy glances up to Michael, as if expecting him to stop her.
Michael stares off at a place on the opposite side of the cafeteria, his jaw set.
When he doesn’t intervene, Roxy continues in a soft voice, “Last year, Clay’s best friend and I were at a party. Clay and I got into an argument earlier that day, so I was drinking a little bit too much. Ben Pratt was close friends with Clay, so I trusted him to take me home, but…” She grimaces, her bright eyes losing some of their sparkle. “He snuck something in my drink. Do you understand?”
Oh, she understands. It sets Victory’s hair standing on end, her stomach twisting in knots. Although she’s never been a victim of sexual assault, she fears it as though it has happened to her. Her mother brought her up on a strict diet of demonizing both men and sexual relations of any kind. As a result, any time she tried to get close to someone, she’d go into a full fight-or-flight response.
The mere thought of someone forcing it on her almost gives her a panic attack.
Victory shakes her head and breaks eye contact with Roxy. “This was a bad idea, Michael.”
Nodding, Michael drapes an arm around her shoulders. “You don’t have to justify anything to me. But I’ll tell you nobody’s ever said anything like that about Clay.”
“Oh, no,” pipes in Roxy. “Seriously, Clay is a complete angel. And that’s coming from his ex.”
“Maybe, but if Ben’s his best friend, I can’t have him as a roommate, right? He’ll be over all the time,” mutters Victory, closing her eyes. What is she going to do? Is she really going to have to drop out of college? “I’m just gonna have to break my lease.”
“You guys are living together?” blurts Roxy, causing a small portion of the cafeteria to hush. Several students stare at them now and Victory ducks her head.
“Um, I’m sorry,” whispers Roxy, wincing.
“It’s okay, I – Um, Michael, I gotta – ” – be anywhere that isn’t here. She disentangles herself from him without further ceremony. Power walking to the end of the buffet line, she dumps her tray and heads for the exit. Ignoring Michael calling after her, she’s almost out the doors when he grabs her arm.
Only it isn’t Michael.
“Can I talk to you for a sec?” Clay asks, releasing her arm. His gray eyes shift to the nearby students, to Roxy and Michael, and back to her. “Outside, maybe?”
Victory considers, but remembers that neither Michael nor Roxy said anything condemning about her new roommate. She nods, leading them out into the blazing sunlight. The air is fresh and pungent, lilac bushes in full bloom in the courtyard across the serviceway.
He gestures for her to cross the street with him, but Victory hesitates.
Clay catches it. Coming back onto the sidewalk from the road, worry lines his forehead. “Victory, I know what Roxy must have said to you. If you don’t want Ben in the house, I’ll understand. But I swear he never did anything to her.”
Fear and anxiety already did a number on her heart rate, but anger pushes it to the limits. “Oh, you were there that night? You were in the car when he drove her home? You and Ben tucked her in together?”
His eyebrows lower, darkening his silvery gray eyes into something more like storm clouds. “No, but I know Ben. He’s been my best friend since kindergarten. Roxy – ”
Victory shakes her head, putting her hands up in a signal for him to stop. “Ted Bundy seemed like a real swell guy to everyone who knew him, too.”
“Ben’s not – ”
With an impatient exhale through her nose, Victory says, “Look, I shouldn’t have even tried to argue with you about this. Just like everyone else, you’d rather discredit the victim than – ”
“She was just trying to get back at me, because I didn’t want to see her anymore!” fumes Clay, almost growling the words.
Victory worries her bottom lip, looking away from Clay’s tight scowl. One of the first rules is to never anger a man, especially if you’re alone with him. And he was moving in. He had to move in.
The truth is, for all her bravado when she said she’d break her lease, she doesn’t have a deposit for a new apartment anyway. She paid the rent last night after receiving Clay’s check.
And he already offered to keep Ben away from the apartment…
“I guess there have been false accusations before,” relents Victory, hating herself for selling out. It’s true that sometimes women fabricate allegations for revenge, but she hates defaulting to that idea. To speak up only for no one to believe you? If something happened to her and everyone called her a liar…
“I swear, he never touched her,” insists Clay, touching two fingers to her arm.
Without thinking, she steps back from the touch. When his face twists in confusion, she covers with a smile. “I guess I overreacted a bit, huh? But, um, about him coming over, I don’t – ”
“It’s fine. You’ll never see him, I swear,” he rushes to agree. The smile he gives her is so massive, she can see that his third tooth on the right sticks out at an angle. With a huge sigh of relief, he adds, “Can I ask you something, too?”
Uncertain, Victory offers an imperceptible nod.
“Please don’t tell anyone where you live,” he says, wincing. “I know it’s a lot to ask, ‘cause it’s your place and all, but you’ll thank me later.”
Scratching the back of her neck, Victory can’t help but laugh. “You avoiding all the women you jilted?”
Clay freezes, taken aback, but then he nods. “They just told you everything, didn’t they?”
“Pretty much,” she chirps, feeling a bit lighter now that the potential threat of Ben is gone.
Rubbing his shoulder, he sends a nervous look back through the cafeteria doors. “That ‘tell nobody’ thing, that goes for Roxy, too, alright?” he adds, sheepish.
“Why? She doesn’t seem to be mad at you or any – ”
“Please?” he insists, lifting his eyebrows.
“Sure,” she says, a bit bummed. Victory likes her and thinks they’ll be friends. Guess they’ll just have to hang at Roxy’s place if it comes to that. “So, I’ll see you Saturday, then?”
“With bells on.” Before she can wince at his awkward comment, he says, “See ya!” with an abrupt wave. He jogs up the sidewalk, rounds the corner, and he’s gone. Just like that.
She might end up the ‘normal’ roommate.