College, I am learning, introduces a young woman to several rites of passage. One of them is subjecting herself to cafeteria food twice a day. Another is writing five-page essays the night before they’re due.
And the most important, most sacred, most exciting of all?
The college party.
I’ve always been a social butterfly. My mom has endless stories about me at age three, interrupting strangers at restaurants and asking if I can sit with them. When I got a little older, I started taking dance classes, and hogged center stage during the recitals. I’ve always loved attention--my best friend Bailey says I need people like a plant needs sunlight. But I’ve also always loved giving attention to others, listening to their innermost thoughts, and finding out what makes them tick.
The college party, I found out shortly after arriving with Bailey at Middleton State, is the ideal place to meet a dizzying number of people at once. So much is happening simultaneously: the music bumps, the dance floor hops, all the while people drink and laugh and kiss. Admittedly, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. However, now that I’m a sophomore, I’ve learned the best method to really get to know people is to pretend like you don’t care, but only up to a point. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve mastered it.
As we walk into the frat house--our first party of the new school year--I immediately adopt a practiced gaze, expertly surveying the room as if I am an assassin on the hunt.
“A lot of cute li’l freshmen are here!” I yell over the music to Bailey, who is looking decidedly less excited to be here. Bailey is the yin to my yang, and the introvert to my extrovert. She would rather be at home with her hot older boyfriend, Christopher, than at this raucous celebration. When I tactfully reminded her that she’d been spending all her time with Christopher, and very little with me, she reluctantly agreed to attend. I know she’d never forget me and that she’s just happily in love, but I miss our time together — even if it takes place while partying with hundreds of other people.
“Oh, joy,” Bailey sighs. “More new friends, huh?”
I grin at her.
“But of course. I am sure they’re all dying to make friends with non-freshmen. They need to start climbing up the social ladder somehow.”
“I am not sure we’re more than a rung above them,” Bailey says, unconvinced, but I stick my tongue out at her.
“Look at them,” I sigh as we grab our drinks (non-alcoholic for Bailey--she’s expecting, and I am ready to be the best aunt). A small group of terrified people stand in the center of the room, wearing the slack-jawed gazes of deer in headlights. “Obviously, they’re freshmen. Should we say hello?”
“No,” Bailey replies, casting a sidelong glance at me. “You’ll just scare them even more with your pep.”
“My pep,” I say with a haughty sniff, “is contagious, and is one of my best features, thank you very much. Come on. Let’s make some new friends.”
Before Bailey can respond, I grab her hand and we wade through the throngs of people.
“Is this your first college party?” I yell over the music, bestowing my most dazzling grin on the group of freshmen.
One of them nods.
“What are we even supposed to do?” she asks, plugging one of her ears with her finger to hear over the thumping bass line.
It’s time for my foolproof getting-to-know-you plan. My grin widens.
“I’m Kara, and this is my bestie Bailey. Follow us!”
After we saddle the four freshmen with cans of cheap beer, I guide us all out to the best spot at a party: the deck. You have to deal with the smoking or vaping crowd, admittedly, but you can also actually carry on a conversation out here. Stars twinkle sweetly in the night sky, welcoming us outside. I feel Bailey immediately relax at my side--the excessively loud music inside always grates on her nerves.
“Thanks again for coming with me,” I whisper to my best friend, pecking her on the cheek. “I am so glad to be here with you.”
Bailey’s warm brown eyes smile along with her mouth. “I am glad to be here with you, too. I promise.”
We chat with the freshmen for a while, enjoying the warm breeze that carries with it the vestiges of summer. I definitely enjoyed summer vacation; it was great to be home with my family, even though they’re only an hour away. It was great, too, to see a certain someone on a regular basis--someone who makes my heart beat a little faster, my cheeks grow a little warmer. Not that he knows it. Not that anyone knows. And I’d prefer to keep it that way, at least for now.
“So what do you study?” one of the freshmen asks.
“I’m majoring in business,” Bailey says. “My dream is to go into interior design when I am done with school.”
“And she’s gonna be a mama soon,” I beam. I am beyond proud of my best friend for chasing her dreams while preparing for motherhood. I’m a little jealous, actually. While I know that being pregnant in school isn’t easy, I’ve always wanted to be a young mother myself. My own mom was a young mother and I believe she’s the best of the best. When will it be my turn?
Whenever you manage to find a boyfriend, I tell myself and sigh.
“I did all my gen eds last year,” I say, pulling myself from my inner pity party. “I think I’m going into psychology this year.”
“I’m a psych major, too!” One of the girls smiles at me, and I smile back. We chat a little about our classes, wondering if we’ll run into each other at some point.
“Do either of you have boyfriends?”
One of the freshmen we’ve been talking to is eyeing Bailey up and down, apparently choosing to ignore my declaration that she’s pregnant. Like our personalities, our looks are completely different. Bailey is shorter and very curvy, especially now, with her cute baby bump. Her hair is curly, brown, and long. I am tall and slender, with straight blonde hair and bright blue eyes. I’ve been told by drooling guys that I’m beautiful, but I definitely don’t always see it. I don’t have the same sparkle in my eye that Bailey does.
“I have a boyfriend,” Bailey says, noticing the freshman checking her out. He visibly deflates, and I try not to laugh. Bailey’s boyfriend Christopher is older, successful, and incredibly hot. They live together off-campus, and Bailey is happier than I’ve ever seen her. The kid in front of us doesn’t have a chance.
“Do you?” he turns to ask me with hope in his voice.
“Sure don’t,” I say, as cheerfully as possible, tossing my hair over my shoulder. “Still waiting for Mr. Right.”
That’s not entirely true. I know who my Mr. Right is, but the problem is that he has no clue that I’ve been lusting after him for years now. What am I thinking? There’s no way that he would ever notice me in that way anyhow…
“You’re single? How is that possible?”
Over the heads of the freshmen, a taller guy aims a smirk at me. I tilt my head, not-so-secretly regarding him. I think I’ve seen him around campus before; that combination of dark hair, blue eyes, and dimples is hard to forget. He’s hot shit and obviously knows it.
“You’re sweet,” I tell him in a sugary voice, taking a sip of my drink. “Guess I am just enjoying my time alone.”
“That’s a shame,” he says, coming up alongside me, ignoring all of the freshmen and Bailey. “You’re too gorgeous to be by yourself. You should let someone make you happy.”
“And who,” I ask archly, “might that someone be?”
He smiles, and there are those dimples, lending a boyish charm to his expression. “I’m Carter,” he says, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
I shake it.
Suddenly, my friend’s voice interrupts our conversation.
“Be right back, Kara. We’re gonna go get some refills.”
Sure enough, Bailey is leading the freshmen back into the party. When I quirk a brow at her, she mouths you’re welcome and grins. I almost call her back, but then I’d have to confess that there’s someone else on my mind, someone else I’d much rather be flirting with than a random guy. Unfortunately, I’m not quite ready to divulge my secrets yet.
“So, Kara,” Carter says, unabashedly flickering his gaze down my body and back up again. “What brings you here tonight?”
It’s all too clear why Carter is here: he’s looking for a hookup. I can sense the prowling energy radiating from him a mile away. I am definitely not interested though, not when Mr. Right is on my mind. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little harmless conversation.
“I just love people,” I say truthfully. “I love meeting new friends and seeing old ones all at once.” I decline to ask why he’s here, when I already know the answer, and something tells me he’ll make it all too clear soon.
“I have a lot of friends,” Carter says, leaning against the railing of the deck. “Maybe you could come home with me and meet them.”
There it is. It took a total of thirty seconds for him to ask me to hook-up. That must be a new record.
“I’m having a good time here,” I say, smiling disarmingly. Hoping to change the subject, I say, “So what are you majoring in, Carter?”
His lips crease into a frown. Apparently, he’s not interested in small talk.
“I’m going to be an athletic trainer,” he says, and puts his hand on my arm. “I could show you some stretches.”
“I’m sure you could,” I say, smiling thinly. If Carter isn’t going to carry on a real conversation with me, then I have no further desire to speak with him. I look past his shoulder, searching through the windows for Bailey or our new freshmen friends, but they’re lost in the crowd somewhere inside.
“I’m sorry, Carter, but I am just here to hang out with my friends,” I say, rubbing my arm so that he’s forced to move his hand away. “I’m sure I’ll see you around, okay?”
I go to head inside, but Carter steps in front of me, blocking my path. My mouth falls open at his audacity, and I prepare to say something rude, but then he kisses me before I can speak.
Ugh! He woodenly moves his arms around me, a paltry imitation of a lover’s embrace, even as I press my hands against his chest, trying to push him away. I finally turn my head to the side, but I am still held fast in his arms.
“Come on, baby,” Carter breathes into my ear, his breath hot and moist. “You know you want it.”
“No, thank you,” I say, firmly, hoping that puts an end to his advances. Instead, he holds me closer, and presses his lips to mine again. I shudder when I realize he’s not going to take no for an answer. I whimper a protest against his lips, but that only seems to turn him on more, and he tightly tangles his fingers in my hair.
No one else is on the deck anymore; no one else can see as I struggle against his grip. My heart pounds frantically, and I keep my eyes open as he kisses me, casting around desperately for an escape. It’s only a kiss, for now, but what if he thinks he’s entitled to something more? He’s clearly taller and stronger than me, and can take whatever he wants.
Enough,I think, hating every second of this assault on my mouth, wishing that Bailey and the freshmen had never left. Determined to escape, I kiss him back for only a moment before I bite down, hard, on his lower lip.
“Fuck!” Carter swears as he pulls away from me. Rage flashes in his eyes as blood bubbles from his lip. Before I can get away from him, he yells, “What the fuck did you do that for?!” Then he shoves me hard like I’m nothing but a rag doll.
The last thing I see are his eyes widening comically. Then I’m falling, and there’s a sharp crack on my head before everything goes dark.