Chapter no 33

A Flicker in the Dark

I first saw him at a house party, dipping a plastic cup into a cooler of neon-red liquid. He had a certain quality about him that I couldn’t quite define— ethereal, almost, like everyone else in the room had dimmed, and he stood there glowing, drawing all the light to his center.

I took a drink out of my own cup and winced; frat party liquor was never of the highest quality, but that wasn’t really the point. I was drinking just enough to feel a little tingly, a little numb. The Valium coursing through my veins had already helped to quiet my nerves, to cloak my mind in a sense of chemically induced calm. I looked down into my cup, at the last remaining finger of liquid, and knocked it back.

“His name’s Ethan.”

I looked over to my left; my roommate, Sarah, was standing next to me, nodding in the direction of the boy I had been staring at. Ethan.

“He’s cute,” she said. “You should go talk to him.” “Maybe.”

“You’ve been staring at him all night.”

I shot a look in her direction as heat rose to my cheeks. “No, I haven’t.”

She smirked, twirled the liquid in her own cup before taking a sip herself.

“Well, fine,” she said. “If you won’t talk to him, I will.”

I watched Sarah saunter over in his direction, pushing through the haze of drunken body heat and noise with a certain determination, a woman on a mission. I stayed firmly planted in my usual spot against the wall—a spot that allowed me to survey the room, always aware of my surroundings, never in a position to be approached from behind, surprised in any way. This was so typical of Sarah. Our entire college friendship had been dominated by her taking the things I so clearly wanted—the bottom bunk in our dorm followed by the bedroom with the walk-in closet in our current apartment, the last open spot in an Abnormal Psych lecture, the only size

medium beige top left hanging in the boutique window. A top she was currently wearing.

And now, Ethan.

I watched her approach him, tap him on the shoulder. He glanced over at her, smiling wide before wrapping her in a friendly hug. It’s fine, I thought. He doesn’t fit the checklist, anyway. And it was true. He was a little too big for my liking, the muscles in his arms bulging as he squeezed Sarah against his chest. He could have held her there if he had wanted to; he could have kept squeezing, like a boa constrictor, until she snapped. He seemed too popular, too. Too used to getting what he wanted. I never got involved with a guy who seemed entitled, who would get angry if I suddenly changed my mind.

I looked over at the front door, a portal away from this stuffy house and back into the cool, crisp air of LSU in fall. I always made it a point never to walk home alone, but now it seemed like Sarah was going to be here for a while, and I didn’t have much of a choice. I had a pepper spray key chain dangling from my apartment key, and it was only a couple of blocks, after all. I hesitated in my spot, wondering if I should walk over to her and tell her goodbye, or if I should just turn around and leave. I doubted anyone would notice, anyway.

I had made my decision, turning back from the door to the party to take one last look around before I made my exit, when I noticed them looking at me. Both Ethan and Sarah, staring in my direction. Sarah was whispering into his ear, a dainty hand cupped over her lips, and Ethan, smiling, nodding along gently. I felt my heartbeat rise into my throat; I looked down into my empty cup, desperately wishing there was something there for me to sip on, if only to give my hands something to do instead of hanging limply by my side. Before I could move from my spot, Ethan started to walk toward me, zeroing in on my eyes as if there were nobody else in the room. Something about him made me nervous, and not in the way men usually made me nervous—guarded, on edge. He made me nervous in a good way, an excited way. I gripped the cup in my hands so hard I heard the plastic crack. When he approached me, finally, he brushed

his thick arms against mine so I could feel the soft cotton of his henley shirt against my skin.

“Hi,” he said, smiling wide. His teeth were so white, so straight. He smelled like that cool blast of fragrance that hits you when you walk past a store in a shopping mall. Clover and sandalwood. I didn’t know it then, but I would come to know that smell so well over the next couple of months; the way it would linger on my pillow for weeks on end, long after the warmth of his body had left. The way I would recognize it anywhere—in the places that he had been, in the places that he shouldn’t have been.

“So, you’re Sarah’s roommate?” he asked, nudging me along. “We know each other from class.”

“Yeah,” I said, glancing over at my friend, who had now partially vanished into the crowd. I shot her a silent apology in my mind for automatically assuming the worst. “I’m Chloe.”

“Ethan,” he said, thrusting a drink in my direction as opposed to a handshake. I took it, slipping the heavy cup into my empty one and drinking from the double-stacked lip. “Sarah mentioned that you’re pre-med?”

“Psychology,” I said. “I’m hoping to pursue my PhD here next fall— then, eventually, my master’s.”

“Wow,” he said. “That’s amazing. Hey, it’s kind of loud in here—do you want to find somewhere quiet to talk?”

I remember the distinct drop of my chest in that moment; the realization that he was just like the rest. I felt like I couldn’t judge him, though. I had done it, too. Used people. Used their bodies to feel less alone. But this time, it felt different. I was on the receiving end.

“I was actually just about to leave—”

“That came out weird,” he interrupted, holding up his hand. “I know guys probably say that a lot. Somewhere quiet, like my bedroom, right? That’s not what I meant.”

He smiled sheepishly as I chewed on the side of my lip, trying to decipher what it was that he did mean. He didn’t fit my checklist, that tried-and-true system I had used to keep myself safe for so long, physically and emotionally. He was hard to pin down, with his picture-perfect smile and tousled blonde surfer’s hair. Chiseled forearms that seemed effortless, like

he had never actually stepped foot inside of a gym. Talking to him somehow seemed both safe and dangerous, like strapping into a roller coaster and feeling your chest lurch back as the clicking of the chains starts to move your body forward, too late to turn back.

“How about in there?”

He gestured over to the kitchen, dirty with old, sticky cups and empty cases of Natural Light beer stacked on the counters, the door removed clean from the hinges. It was empty, though. Quiet enough to talk, but visible enough to feel safe. I nodded, and let him trail me down the crowded hallway and into the fluorescently lit room. He grabbed a towel and wiped down a counter, patting it twice with a grin. I walked over and leaned against it, placing my hands on the surface and hoisting myself up until I was sitting on the edge, my feet dangling in the air. He sat down next to me and tipped his old plastic cup against mine. We each took a sip, staring at each other from above the plastic.

And that’s where we sat for the next four hours.

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