WHEN YOUR DAY STARTS out with the words DIE BITCH carved into your mattress, it’s probably not going to be a stellar one.
I tilt my head at my bed, maybe hoping it says something else from a different angle. It doesn’t.
It’s not like I was even hoping today would be stellar. I was expecting to do some laundry. Study for my chem test. Revel in the solitude of my dorm room while my roommate was out of town.
I stare at the sharp words and realize her creepy presence looms large whether she is in the room or not.
I slump into the nearby desk chair clutching the stripped-off bottom sheet to my chest. I’m overreacting. It might not even be Sami that wrote...er...slashed...the warning. Maybe the words were carved there a long time ago, and I just haven’t seen it before. Sami is odd, but is she that far gone around the bend?
It has to be random vandalizing of school property that I somehow just missed.
Except I know it’s probably not. I don’t just not notice things. Part of my “charm” is my over-attention to detail. My mind is tumbling over as many scenarios as it can to find a plausible explanation for why anyone, least of all my roommate, would hate me enough to want me to die. Or at least scare me into thinking they do. I’m not generally memorable enough to cause strong feelings one way or another. I keep to myself. I’m quiet. I don’t leave a mess.
I’m boring as fuck.
My phone vibrates loudly on the cheap particle board desk next to me, and I jump off the chair and squeak at the unexpected noise. My heart is fighting its way up my throat, and I take a few deep breaths before looking at the screen.
I push the green button. “I miss you so much,” I expel more than say to my very best friend. Really my only friend.
A pause. “Are you okay, Penelope?”
My mouth is a little parched, actually, so I swig from my water bottle before answering. “Sorry. Yeah. I just...you know.” Not sure I can do this I want to say, but don’t. She doesn’t need to hear me say that out loud even though I’m sure she suspects it already.
The deal had always been that Jenna and I would attend Cascadia State University together, that we would be roommates, but Jenna got a last-minute offer from an art school in California, and no way was I going to get in the way of her pursuing her dreams.
Unfortunately, Jenna Fletcher is my only real friend. Also my opposite in just about every way. From her boho wardrobe to her extroverted passion for hanging out where, cue internal shudder, people congregate. Luckily, opposites attracted us to each other in elementary school. I think it started when she pity-invited me to sit with her at lunch one day. And then every day after until she moved away this summer, leaving me to figure all this social stuff out on my own.
Over the years, she dragged me to a few parties and sporting events in high school, but for the most part, we had our outside lives that we lived separately from our friendship. Which was fine. And it worked. She had her friends, and I had my books, and we had each other. But without her now, I have zero idea what I’m doing. Nobody drags me to parties anymore. Nobody explains social interaction to me when I get confused. And I get confused a lot.
“How’s your psycho roommate?” she asks, and I shudder.
I try to make my voice neutral. “She went home for the weekend.”
There’s an unnatural pause on the line. Okay, it’s a natural pause considering the source. Jenna knows things somehow. She’s always been able to sense extra stuff in a conversation. I’m hardly able to understand the actual words people say, but she finds the meaning beneath them. The subtext. If she’s pausing, it means she’s digging deeper.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing.” I turn away from my bed, and my pastier than usual face greets me in the mirror. I can see the reflection of the mattress behind me, though, so I close my eyes, not eager to see that any more than my own reflection. Buck up, Pen. I don’t want Jenna to worry about me. She’s too far away to do anything, and she needs to enjoy her college experience even if I’m not enjoying mine. It’s important to me that she doesn’t feel guilty or dragged down by me. She’s so talented—she deserves to have this time to develop her gifts and have fun. She’s taken care of me too long—she needs to be free for a while. Do her own thing and not have to worry about anyone but herself. “How is school?” Maybe if I can distract her—
“Penelope. What. Is. Going. On? I can tell from your voice you’re not okay. Why aren’t you okay?”
I hesitate. Once more, I try to talk myself down. It’s possible that the words have been in that mattress for years. Maybe I just didn’t notice them. Then I remember how Sami put padlocks on her dorm closet because she knew I was wearing her t-shirts at night while she slept. How sometimes I wake up with that creepy sensation that I’m being watched—and Sami is staring at me from her bed across the small space that divides us.
I shudder again. I don’t know how to do this peopling thing without Jenna. But it’s not fair to drag her into this.
“It’s all good, Jenna.”
“You’re pissing me off. Are we not best friends anymore?”
I blink. “Of course, we are.” We will always, always be best friends.
“Then don’t keep things from me. We’ve never kept stuff from each other before. I mean, I know we don’t live close to each other anymore, but if I knew moving to California was going to ruin our friendship, I wouldn’t have come.”
“It’s not. I promise. You will always be my best friend. I just don’t want you to worry.”
I tell Jenna about my mattress, trying to make it sound as innocent as possible. It’s a non-issue. It’s fine. I throw the sheet back over the evidence to the contrary so I don’t have to look at it.
She freaks out. “You have got to move. Go to the housing office right now.”
“I can’t. Everything is full. I’m already on the waitlist.” After Sami made me start wearing gloves before I touched the doorknob, I applied for a roommate change. I am allowed to touch the light switch, she said, but the knob needs protection from my germs. “I’ll move when they have an open room. Right now, I have to make the best of it. Besides, it’s Saturday. They aren’t open.”
“Is there an emergency number for housing?”
“But you won’t call it.” She’s exasperated with me. I miss her so much. I wish we were together right now so she could yell at me in person. “I don’t like this.”
“I know. Tell me about school.”
Jenna has much better stories about school than I do. She’s been to parties and football games and had sex seven times this quarter. Which is seven more times than I’ve ever had sex. Ever.
Which was not a problem until recently.
Nowadays, it’s kind of a problem.
Previously, I made it through high school with only the barest of crushes and only on unattainable, therefore safe, men. My chem teacher in eighth grade, Jenna’s older brother, occasionally Tony Stark. But they were mostly asexual crushes. I didn’t dream of sexy kisses or naked skin. More like—long talks about string theory. Or in the case of Jenna’s older brother, my fantasy started and stopped with him telling a room full of people that I was his girlfriend. That’s it. Just acknowledging our romantic relationship publicly. Lame, right?
While my classmates went from holding hands to making out to heavy petting to blow jobs and the Big O—I was content to fantasize about boys who wanted to talk to me about science.
I assumed that I would always be uninterested in sex. Jenna even suggested that maybe I am a lesbian. But, nope. After hours of looking at pretty girls online together, and none of them doing anything for me naked or clothed, we concluded I wasn’t any more attracted to women than men. I just wasn’t a sexual person.
Which was fine with me. Sexual attraction seemed messy and hard to understand. I could live quite happily coasting on platonic relationships and vicarious adventures.
Then I woke up one day this summer and my hormones betrayed me.
Turns out, I am not asexual, just a tragically late bloomer.
I am unprepared for this college experience on my own. Now that I no longer have access to my BFF who understands all these things, I am barely treading water. I have become boy crazy but have no idea how to talk to boys. I’ve tried. It ends...badly. I’m lonely, but don’t know how to make friends. My clothes fit me weird, especially after my hormone surge, but I don’t know how to shop or style myself. I am seriously out of my league on all fronts except academia. Which I still love, but not as much. Not nearly as much.
I do not know or understand this new person living in my body.
I’m not exaggerating about being boy crazy, either. No man is safe from my filthy mind anymore. Every guy I see, I’m picturing naked. I don’t understand it. I don’t want to understand it. If anyone saw my browser history, they’d wonder how I get anything done. I’m going to blame my intellect for this obsession with naked men on the internet. Now that I have all these hormones and no place to use them, I am drawn to the pictures, the videos, the stories, that might help me make sense of it all. It’s research.
And I have always been very, very good at research.
It’s embarrassing how much time I spend researching. I think about sex all the time, but I have no outlet. I spend hours looking at porn. I spend my class time wondering about the penises of every male person unfortunate enough to be within my sighting distance. If they knew what I was thinking...God, I’m indecent. I just want, all the time. And it’s likely I will never assuage the ache because I cannot figure out how to even start a conversation, much less carry one out long enough to get from hello to naked and sweaty.
Jenna has had sex seven times this quarter, and I haven’t been able to ask a boy his name. And my roommate is psycho and wants me to die.
“What are you thinking right now?” Jenna asks.
That I probably don’t need a college graduation to manage the Pizza Hut back home. They’d hire me back, I’m sure of it. I’ll work my way up from supervisor to manager. “I’m going to quit. I’ll call my parents and have them pick me up tomorrow.”
“I can go to the community college for two years. I’m not cut out for this yet. I need to be home. Maybe a couple more years of maturity will help.”
“Sweetie, you worked really hard to get into the chem program at CSU. You can’t quit. You can’t let the psycho win.”
“But you can’t stay there either. Not even tonight.”
She’s right, but what other option do I have? We talk for a few more minutes, and I hate that I’m worrying her. There is nothing she can do from so far away, and it’s so unfair that I laid this all at her feet.
There is a knock at my door, and I hiccup a startled cry. “Someone is at my door.”
“I know,” Jenna answers. “Don’t be mad.”
“Why would I be mad?”
The knocking resumes. “Penelope, are you okay in there?”
The voice is familiar. And since I only know one other person on campus, I know exactly who it is.
“You texted your brother?” I ask Jenna. To the door, I say, “I’m fine.”
Brad Fletcher, Fletch, is a junior and a jock, and though he’s aware of my existence back home, he’s not been anywhere near me since I started school here.
Jenna sighs heavily into the phone while I stare at the door. “I’m sorry, sweetie. It was the only thing I could think of,” she says.
Fletch pounds again. “Open up, Penelope, or I’m going to break down the door.”
“Gotta go. Love you!” Jenna says, ending our call.
Oh, she is in so much trouble.
I take a deep breath and open the door to Fletch and another guy roughly the same size. Which is LARGE. They are both holding cardboard boxes. Truth be told, I’m glad Fletch is here. He’s the closest thing I have to Jenna right now.
“Hey, squirt. I hear you’re having a bad day.”
And it hits me all at once. I’m homesick and scared and horny and so damned lonely. The tears I’ve been holding back won’t stay down any longer, and I start blubbering.
Great. Crying is a new one for me too. I cried a few times as a kid—skinned knees mostly. Never because of feelings. This sucks.
“Aw, c’mere, baby girl.” Fletch puts the box down and folds me into his arms. I don’t even care that I’m snotting all over him. He’s like home and no crazy person is going to carve me up with a razor blade while he’s holding me.
I don’t think Fletch has ever touched me before. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. Aside from when he gave us rides before we were old enough to drive and the occasional “she’s my girlfriend” fantasy in my head, we’ve had very little interaction.
He smells wonderful. If Strong and Capable were a scent, it would smell like whatever soap or aftershave or cologne he uses. He sort of moves us deeper into my dorm room so the guy behind him can come in. He makes like he’s going to sit us down on my bed, but I tense up.
Not the bed. Please not the bed.
The blond guy narrows his eyes and pulls off the sheet I’d covered the bed back with and swears.
“Okay, you’re coming with us,” Fletch says as we all stare at the offending words.
Blond Dude starts putting things into a box.
“What?” I ask. “Where?”
Blond Dude answers for him, “Our house.” Then he adds, “Hi. I’m Shane. I’m your new roommate.”
I try to protest, but they insist on packing up the things on my side of the room.
“I can’t sleep on your couch indefinitely,” I argue, grabbing the panties Shane is holding before he can box them up. I don’t think I can ever look at him again. He was holding my panties. I think I’d rather take my chances with Sami than deal with strange good-looking boys handling my panties.
“Jeff moved in with his girlfriend, so his room is empty.”
I gather Jeff was their roommate. I try to tell them I can’t pay, that my housing money is tied up with my scholarship and the dorm, but they act like they don’t hear me.
Fletch palms both my shoulders and forces me to look up. Way, way up. “You’re like my little sister, Penelope. Do you really think I’ll let you stay here to get murdered in your sleep?”
I don’t know how to answer that. Not really. I’ve never really felt like his little sister. But I’m so grateful right now that someone cares. I can’t even describe how much it means. I know I’m lonely, but it isn’t until I have something tangible in front of me saying I’m not alone that I realize how bad it’s been.
I’ll figure something out. I can’t stay with them forever. But tonight, I’m safe. Tomorrow can work itself out.